Rio Tinto staff charged with bribery and theft of trade secrets

China has charged four employees of Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto with bribery and stealing business secrets in an industrial espionage case that had sparked a diplomatic row and raised concerns about the risks of doing business in China.


AFP - China has charged four employees of mining giant Rio Tinto including an Australian in an industrial espionage case that has strained diplomatic ties, a lawyer for one of the employees said Wednesday.

The group of four, which includes Australian passport holder Stern Hu, allegedly "used their positions to obtain benefits for others and on many occasions solicited or accepted bribes," state-run Xinhua news agency said.

The report said the employees of the Anglo-Australian firm had also "on many occasions obtained the trade secrets of Chinese steel companies, leading to serious consequences for the relevant steel companies".

Zhang Peihong, a lawyer for one of the accused, confirmed the charges to AFP.

Hu and his three colleagues, all Chinese nationals, were detained last July and initially accused of stealing state secrets in a case that badly strained Beijing's relations with Canberra. The accusations were later watered down.

A spokeswoman with the Australian embassy in Beijing said she was aware of the report but referred requests for comment to the government in Canberra.

In Australia, a Rio Tinto spokesman declined immediate comment as did a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith.

The Australian national's arrest sparked concerns over the perils of doing business deals with rapidly industrialising China, the world's biggest iron ore consumer.

The arrests were made during fraught iron ore negotiations and followed the snubbing by Rio of a proposed 19.5 billion US dollar investment from China's state-owned metals giant Chinalco, raising speculation the events were linked.

The tense iron ore negotiations later collapsed.

The three Chinese nationals are Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang, and Liu Caikui.

The case was filed with Shanghai's First Intermediate People's Court, Xinhua said. Calls to the court went unanswered.

However, Zhang Peihong, a lawyer for Wang, told AFP court officials had confirmed the charges to him.

"A trial is likely to be in late February or early March," Zhang said.

Zhang declined further comment, citing a confidentiality agreement with Chinese authorities.

According to the website of China's Supreme People's Court, charges of bribery and abuse of one's position bring a sentence of at least five years in prison for large cases, or up to five years for lesser violations.

The trade secrets charges call for sentences of at least three years in jail for cases resulting in "especially" large losses, or lesser charges for smaller cases, it said.

China is one of Australia's most important trading partners and a key driver of its economy due to huge Chinese demand for Australian raw materials.

Rio Tinto has said it does not believe its employees have done anything wrong.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman last month defended China's handling of the case, saying it had been dealt with "according to relevant Chinese laws, legal processes and China-Australia consular agreements".

"I believe this case will result in a lawful and just outcome," spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at the time.


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