A Chinese court has convicted four employees of mining giant Rio Tinto including Australian national Stern Hu on bribery and trade secrets charges, handing down jail terms ranging from seven to 14 years.
Hu was sentenced to 10 years in jail in the case, which also involved three Chinese employees of the company .
Rio Tinto sacked the four, and voiced hope the case wouldn’t affect its vital trade with China.
Analysts said Hu had the right of appeal, but stressed that only one per cent of appeals are successful in China.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith branded it a ‘tough sentence’ on any measure.
Stealing trade secrets
The four were found guilty of stealing trade secrets including the minutes of a China Iron and Steel Association meeting and information on China steel giant Shougang’s output, the court said.
It marked the first time that details on the trade secrets charges had been publicly revealed.
The court in Shanghai also said Hu, who heads Rio’s Shanghai office, took bribes totalling 6.46 million yuan (950,000 dollars).
It handed down jail terms of 14 years to Wang Yong, eight years to Ge Minqiang and seven years to Liu Caikui.
Liu’s lawyer, Tao Wuping, said his client was likely to appeal. It was not immediately clear whether Hu and the other defendants planned to appeal.
The defendants were accused last week of accepting about 13 million dollars in bribes, according to their lawyers.
The four Rio employees were arrested last July during contentious iron ore contract talks between top mining companies and the steel industry in China, the world’s largest consumer of the raw material. The talks collapsed.
The four defendants appeared before the court in civilian clothing, with Hu wearing a blue wind-breaker. His normally black hair was white.
Hu also was fined 500,000 yuan and had another 500,000 yuan worth of personal assets confiscated, the court said.
Trial watched globally
The trial has been closely watched as a test of the rule of law in China and has sparked concerns about doing business in the world’s third-largest economy.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told the ABC’s 7.30 Report he felt there were serious implications for how the business community views operations in China, but that as far as the bilateral relationship is concerned, ‘I dont believe there’ll be any adverse effects’, he said.
A prosecutor recommended Hu be given a lenient sentence after he apologised to the court and to Rio, saying he took more than $US900,000 ($A991,954) to help friends, his lawyer Jin Chunqing said.
Prime Minister Rudd had earlier said the world would be watching the trial – seen as a test of Chinese law for mining companies and others observering the stability of operating in China.
Eight months before sentencing
The four were arrested last July during contentious iron ore contract talks between top mining companies and the steel industry in China, the world’s largest consumer of the raw material. The talks collapsed.
At the three-day trial, the court heard evidence that millions of yuan in bribes had been stuffed into bags and boxes for the accused, according to state media.
Hu took money from small private steel companies, which before the global financial crisis were locked out of buying iron ore from Rio because the Anglo-Australian miner prioritised large state-run steel giants, Jin said.
When the global economic crisis hit in September 2008 demand for iron ore plummeted and the smaller players paid bribes “to squeeze into the club and join the buyers”, he said.