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Oct 6 (Reuters) - A Canadian court ruled on Thursday that a lawsuit against Nevsun Resources Ltd by Eritreans who say they were forced to work at the company's Bisha mine can proceed in British Columbia, but not as a single case, according to a copy of the judgment seen by Reuters.
The Vancouver-based miner argued that the case should be dismissed and that any lawsuit should be heard in Eritrea, not Canada, an argument the court rejected.
But the judge granted an application by Nevsun asking the court to find that the case could not continue as a representative action, similar to a class action, noting that the six workers named in the case made slightly different allegations. The Eritreans will need to file separate lawsuits, which could make the case more complex and expensive.
Joe Fiorante, one of the lawyers representing the workers, said he was not concerned about that part of the decision.
"We're reviewing that aspect of the decision but the case will certainly go forward," he said. "This is a big win for us."
Nevsun said it is studying the ruling and considering an appeal of the decision that the action can proceed at all.
If Nevsun loses at trial, the company could be forced to pay compensation for "severe physical and mental pain and suffering."
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.
In affidavits filed with the court, six men, who have since left Eritrea, said they were forced to work at 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.
Some workers backed up the company in affidavits, saying they worked at the mine voluntarily and never experienced mistreatment.
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. (Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto; Editing by Peter Cooney and Grant McCool)