Rio Tinto Trial in China Concludes Second Day

Rio Tinto Trial in China Concludes Second Day
For a second day, prosecutors here presented evidence Tuesday to show that four employees from the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto had accepted millions of dollars in bribes and stolen commercial secrets from Chinese companies, according to an Australian official and lawyers involved in the case.
The high-profile trial, which is largely closed to the public, has already resulted in guilty pleas by all four defendants, including Stern Hu, an Australian national who served as a high-level executive in Shanghai for Rio Tinto.

But the closed nature of the trial has made it difficult to determine what evidence has been presented, what role executives and employees at Rio Tinto played in the alleged corrupt acts and why the four employees, three of whom are Chinese citizens, were initially arrested last July on charges of espionage and harming the economic interests of China.

Later, they were formally charged with bribery and theft of commercial secrets.

“There must be a very tight lockdown on any disclosure,” said David Kelly, a professor of China studies at the University of Technology in Sydney. “This is the way Chinese law has always operated. And they only take a case if they know they’re going to win it, so there’s no room for defense.”

The case has alarmed Western executives in China because of the initial appearance that the Chinese authorities were punishing a global company that had found itself at odds with Chinese state-owned companies in business deals and over multibillion-dollar iron-ore contracts.

Rio Tinto is one of the leading suppliers of iron ore to Chinese steel mills.

The guilty pleas Monday seemed to complicate an already puzzling case, even though the four defendants admitted to taking far less money than the $13 million prosecutors said they had accepted in the form of bribes, according to their lawyers.

Australian officials have pressed for an open and transparent legal process, while Beijing has insisted that the case — which is expected to end Wednesday — should not be “politicized.”

A spokesman for Rio Tinto declined to comment Tuesday, and Tom Connor, Australia’s consul general in Shanghai, said he could report only that prosecutors, defense lawyers and the defendants had been allowed to speak in court Tuesday to make arguments on the bribery aspect of the trial.

Mr. Connor said the commercial secrets part of the proceedings was to have begun later Tuesday in a session closed even to Australian consular officials.

“Because we’re right in the middle of the proceedings and the trial itself is still continuing, I’m not able to give you any commentary or analysis,” Mr. Connor told reporters Tuesday.

Australia had pressed to have its officials attend the commercial secrets part of the trial, and legal experts have sharply criticized China for barring even an Australian consular official from attending that portion.

“The exclusion of the Australian consular observer from the closed session of the trial is not right,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University Law School and an expert on China’s legal system. “This seems contrary to the Australia-China Consular Convention.”

By Tuesday afternoon, few details had been released by people who had attended the trial. Zhou Qi, who works with one of the defense lawyers, said late Tuesday that Rio Tinto was not aware that the four China-based employees on trial had been taking bribes.

But legal experts and steel industry analysts say that as iron ore prices skyrocketed in recent years, rough bargaining took place in the industry, and some backroom deals may have been done.

Analysts following the trial are not sure, though, whether the outcome will explain just why the four Rio Tinto employees are being prosecuted while no executives from Chinese companies have been charged with paying bribes or giving away commercial secrets.