Rio Tinto executive 'pleads guilty'
Four employees of mining giant go on trial in China for espionage and taking bribes.
Last Modified: 22 Mar 2010 11:37 GMT
Chinese media last summer accused the four of seeking information about mines and steel mills [AFP]

An Australian executive with mining company Rio Tinto has pleaded guilty to taking bribes, a defence lawyer has said.

Australian Stern Hu and three Chinese employees of Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto faced prosecutors in a Shanghai court on Monday, accused of taking bribes and violating commercial secrets.

"Stern Hu definitely pleaded guilty [to bribery charges]," Tao Wuping, the lawyer for Hu and another one of the accused, Liu Caikui, said.

Tom Connor, the Australian Consul General in Shanghai, told reporters that Hu had been accused of taking bribes totalling 6.4 m yuan ($ 936,500).

"Mr Hu made some admissions concerning some of those bribery amounts, so he did acknowledge the truth of some of those bribery amounts," Connor said.

Wang Yong, another executive on trial, pleaded guilty "in part" to accepting bribes, his lawyer Zhang Peihong said, but is contesting a $9m portion of the $10.25m he is charged with accepting.

It has not been made clear if Liu Caikui and Ge Minqiang have accepted any charges of bribery.

Rio Tinto has said the four men did nothing wrong.

China ties

While the trial was opening in Shanghai, Tom Albanese, Rio's chief executive, signalled to an audience in Beijing that he did not want to jeopardise business ties with China, the world's biggest consumer of iron ore.

Rio Tinto executives on trial

 Australian Stern Hu and Chinese executives Liu Caikui, Ge Minqiang and Wang Yong accused of bribery and theft of commercial secrets.

 If convicted they could face up to seven years jail on the commercial secrets charges and possibly up to 20 years for bribery.

ustralian officials have been told they will be barred from hearings related to theft of commercial secrets.

 The case has raised investor worries about doing business in China's murky legal environment.

 Australia has warned China that major economic interests could be affected by the case.

"This issue is obviously of great concern to us," Albanese told a forum of officials and executives, referring to the case.

"I can only say we respectfully await the outcome of the Chinese legal process," he told the forum, held in an exclusive state guesthouse.

Albanese said "we remain committed to strengthening our relationship with China, not just because you are our biggest customer, but because we see long-term business advantages for both of us".

The Australian department of foreign affairs and trade released a statement over the weekend saying: "The Government's disappointment with the decision has been registered with Chinese officials in Beijing and Canberra."

Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, told reporters on Monday that his government would be "monitoring the trial very carefully".

"China has a different legal system to Australia; China has a different legal system to the rest of the world," he said. "The world will be watching very closely."

The men face up to seven years in jail if convicted on charges of commercial espionage and five years or longer in jail if found guilty of bribery.

Ore prices

Mei Xinyu, a columnist in the Chinese-language Shanghai Securities News, said: "The Australian government and public need to calmly and rationally consider this question: should the government waste such a large amount of political and financial resources to pay the bill for certain companies' immature and even illegal ways?

In video

Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, tells Al Jazeera that the charges are 'political'

"What Rio Tinto and Stern Hu did would be utterly taboo in any host country," Mei, a ministry of commerce think tank researcher, said.

The four employees from Rio's iron ore team were detained last summer at the height of negotiations over 2009 ore prices, creating an uproar over China's state secrets laws.

Chinese media last summer accused the four of seeking information about Chinese mines and steel mills, which many firms consider legitimate market information.

Foreign reporters were not allowed to attend the trial.

China has excluded Australian diplomats from observing the part of the trial concerning commercial secrets, drawing protests from Canberra, which says they have the right to be present for the whole trial, scheduled to last three days.

The trial opened on the same day that internet giant Google may announce whether it will pull out of China over its complaints about censorship and hacking, reports have suggested.

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