VANCOUVER, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Nevsun Resources Ltd lost its bid to have a Canadian court throw out a lawsuit by Eritreans workers who say they were forced to work at its mine in East Africa, according to an appeals court judgment released on Tuesday.
A lower Canadian court ruled last October that the lawsuit against Nevsun can proceed in British Columbia. Nevsun had appealed the ruling, arguing the case should be dismissed and that any lawsuit should be heard in Eritrea, not Canada.
In Tuesday's judgment, three British Columbia Appeals court judges said the lower court judge had not erred in his ruling, and dismissed all three of Nevsun's appeals.
"This is a very significant win for the claimants," said Joe Fiorante, one of the lawyers representing the workers. "The case will now go forward on the merits."
Nevsun could not immediately be reached for comment. The company can appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada over the latest ruling.
In affidavits filed with the court, six men, who have since left Eritrea, said they were forced to work at Nevsun's Bisha from 2008 to 2012 and that they endured harsh conditions at the Eritrean gold, copper and zinc mine, including hunger, illness and physical punishment at the hands of military commanders.
They said they were conscripts in the country's national service system when they worked at Bisha, working not for Nevsun directly but for government-owned construction firms subcontracted to build the mine.
Nevsun says its mine is a model development. In legal filings, it said the Eritrean military never provided labor to the mine. Even if it did, the company argues, Nevsun was not directly responsible for employing the workers.
The United Nations has said Eritrea's national service program is "similar to slavery in its effects" - an allegation the government rejects. Eritrea, ruled by a former Marxist guerrilla leader since its independence from Ethiopia, sees conscription as crucial to its security.
If Nevsun loses at trial, the company could be forced to pay compensation for "severe physical and mental pain and suffering."
(Reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)