China Power

Rough Justice?

A surprisingly harsh sentence for four mining executives in a much-anticipated court verdict.

Google may have received the most comment in recent weeks, but today saw the long-awaited resolution of a case that has also been watched with some anxiety by foreign businesses in China.

This isn’t to imply long-awaited means drawn-out—the trial of four Rio Tinto executives charged with bribery and theft of commercial secrets took only three days last week, with the trial ending Wednesday and a verdict delivered today. The executives of the British-Australian mining giant, including an Australian citizen, were sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison.

The length of the sentences is somewhat surprising as admissions of guilt (though the sums involved were disputed) had prompted speculation that there might be some leniency. However, the sentences could have been worse—initially the four, who were detained last July, were held on suspicion of stealing state secrets. But following strong protests from the Australian government and others, who were concerned the charges had been trumped up and who were worried about transparency, the charges were reduced.

The four were arrested just a month after Rio Tinto dropped a proposed $19.5bn investment from China’s state-controlled firm Aluminium Corp of China, also known as Chinalco, prompting speculation at the time that the arrests were retaliatory.

Stern Hu, the Australian executive, reportedly told his lawyers that he had been well-treated. Regardless of the veracity of such statements, they probably seemed wise to make at the time—no point in criticizing the justice system just ahead of a verdict in which you’re hoping your co-operation will be smiled upon.
Hu’s apparent claim that he was feeling ‘relaxed’ ahead of the verdict now looks, though, unfortunately premature. But perhaps not surprising. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the odds are generally stacked against defendants in China:

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‘China courts have a remarkably high conviction rate for cases that are brought to trial: From 1998 to 2006, fewer than 1% of criminal defendants were acquitted. Lawyers’ pre-trial access to clients is generally limited, as is their ability to challenge the prosecution’s evidence by calling their own witnesses or cross-examining those brought by the prosecution.’