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Last Updated: Friday, 5 August 2005, 04:26 GMT 05:26 UK
Indonesian pollution trial opens
Indonesian woman holding a placard of a child alleged to have suffered a skin complaint because of environmental pollution
North Sulawesi residents claim children have suffered skin damage
A landmark trial in which the world's largest gold miner is facing criminal charges of environmental negligence has begun in Indonesia.

The Indonesian arm of Newmont Mining Corp and its top US executive there are accused of polluting an area near to a mine in the North Sulawesi province.

They claim the allegations, which they deny, are disproved by a "substantial body of scientific evidence".

Richard Ness faces a maximum ten-year jail sentence if convicted.

Rare case

Newmont has faced accusations of pollution before, but never accompanied by criminal charges.

It is also a rare example of the Indonesian government taking a foreign company to court.

Newmont Mining's Indonesian arm, Newmont Minahasa Raya, and Mr Ness - the local firm's president director - are accused of knowingly dumping waste on an island in the province, about 1,300 miles north east of Jakarta.

The Indonesian authorities claim local residents have suffered serious skin diseases and neurological disorders after being exposed to abnormally high levels of toxic metals including mercury and arsenic.

The firm, which began operations in the area in 1996, says it has fully complied with environmental regulations relating to waste removal from the mine, which closed last year.

Independent research

It insists there is no credible scientific evidence pointing to any environmental pollution.

In its defence, the firm is expected to point to independent research - including a report commissioned by the World Health Organisation - arguing that no environmental damage was caused and that traces of heavy metal deposits found on villagers were within acceptable levels.

Richard Ness, President of Newmont Minahasa Raya
We have not done anything wrong
Richard Ness, Newmont Minahasa Raya

Prosecutors claim that the company dumped more than five million tons of pollutants into the water around Buyat Bay.

As well as calling witnesses suffering from alleged waste-induced illnesses, its case is expected to highlight a police report which said that metal traces found in the area were above national standards.

Mr Ness said he was "very confident" that the company would be cleared of negligence.

"We have not done anything wrong," he told reporters on Thursday.

In a statement published when charges were brought, Newmont said it was confident that Mr Ness would be "exonerated".

The trial follows the detention of five Newmont employees last year in relation to allegations of illegal dumping.

An Indonesian court subsequently ruled that the arrests were illegal.

Foreign investment

Environmental campaigners have praised the government for bringing the case to trial.

Map illustrating Buyat Bay
Buyat Bay is about 1,300 miles northeast of Jakarta

"If companies follow environmental requirements they won't have to worry," said Raja Siregar, from the lobby group WALHI.

"If they don't they will face a problem in the future."

However, there are concerns that the trial could deter foreign investment in Indonesia.

A separate civil suit, in which the government is suing the firm for damages of more than $130m, could be settled out of court.

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