Australia shocked at 'very tough' China sentence
China jailed an Australian executive with mining giant Rio Tinto for 10 years and handed stiff terms to three of his colleagues yesterday for stealing trade secrets and pocketing millions in bribes.
The climax to the trial in Shanghai - which stoked foreign investors' anxiety about the rule of law in China - provoked protests from Australia, which said the prison term for Stern Hu was "very tough" and "harsh".
But the Anglo-Australian mining firm, a prime supplier of the raw materials that China needs to sustain its economic boom, announced it was firing the convicted quartet and said it wanted to maintain good relations with Beijing.
Mr Hu and the three Chinese staff were convicted of taking more than €9.6 million in kickbacks from Chinese steel firms during tense 2009 iron ore talks, which the court said they had helped ruin, and of stealing trade secrets.
Mr Hu, head of Rio Tinto's Shanghai office, was sentenced to seven years for bribery and five more on the industrial espionage charge - but the court reduced the combined sentence to 10 years.
His colleagues Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang and Liu Caikui were given jail terms of 14, eight and seven years respectively. The actions of the defendants "severely damaged the competitiveness of China's steel companies" and "isolated" China during last year's iron ore price talks, leading to their collapse, presiding judge Liu Xin told the court.
"They took advantage of their favourable position in the iron ore trade and teased out information by dangling the promise of profits," the judge said.
"The four have confessed criminal information that prosecutors did not know," he said, flanked by two other judges.
At last week's three-day trial, the court reportedly heard evidence that millions of yuan in bribes from small Chinese steel mills were stuffed into bags and boxes for the accused.
The presiding judge said the bribes took other forms too - Mr Ge took a watch worth more than €14,000. He said assets worth a combined 6.3 million yuan (€684,000) were confiscated from the men.
But foreign critics said the four were made to pay the price as China grows increasingly assertive in defending its economic interests and ensuring access to materials it needs to fuel its dramatic economic growth.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith protested over Mr Hu's bribery sentence and said there were "serious unanswered questions" about the trial's industrial spying portion, from which Australian diplomats were shut out.