MANADO, Indonesia (AP) - An American who heads the Indonesian branch of the world's largest gold producer went on trial Friday on criminal charges of dumping toxins into a bay, in a case that is being closely watched by foreign investors and environmentalists.
The Indonesian government says Newmont Mining Corp. dumped mercury and arsenic-laced pollutants into the Buyan Bay on Sulawesi island.
Richard Ness, president director of the local subsidiary Newmont Minahasa Raya, is being held responsible and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted.
"Everyone involved in this firmly believes we have not done anything wrong,'' Ness, 55, told reporters earlier this week. "There is no pollution. ...We will be exonerated.''
The Denver, Colorado-based company began operations in Sulawesi in 1996, and stopped mining two years ago after extracting all the gold it could. But it continued processing ore until Aug. 31, 2004, when the mine was permanently shut.
Villagers blame skin diseases and other illness on pollutants dumped in the bay - an allegation Newmont denies.
The trial in the North Sulawesi capital of Manado, 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) northeast of Jakarta, could take several weeks. The indictment will be read out Friday, and Newmont will be given two weeks to respond.
Mining analysts say a guilty verdict could scare off foreign investors already anxious over the country's legal uncertainties, rising costs and excessive red tape.
Environmentalists say the trial offers the government - which for decades coddled investors - an opportunity to hold a foreign firm accountable.
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