Rio Tinto trial ends, verdict might take days

11:07, March 25, 2010      

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The trial of four Rio Tinto executives ended in Shanghai Wednesday, but the verdicts are yet to be announced.

Stern Hu, the head of the London-based Anglo-Australian mining giant's Shanghai office, and his subordinates, Liu Caikui and Ge Minqiang, and iron ore salesman Wang Yong, pleaded guilty Monday to taking kickbacks. But they have contested the amounts alleged by prosecutors.

According to Bloomberg, Tao Wuping, Liu's lawyer, said his client also pleaded guilty to charges of stealing commercial secrets, which the other three defendants contested.

"Ge Minqiang claimed he was unaware that what he's done has infringed (laws re-garding) commercial secrets," Ge's lawyer, Zhai Jian, told Bloomberg. "That's why we pleaded not guilty."

According to Zhai, prosecutors said Ge infringed on commercial secrets by collect-ing information about steelmakers, including their iron ore demand. Ge contested that he was doing market research needed to perform his work duties, Zhai told Bloomberg.

Wang also denied the charge, his attorney Zhang Peihong said, adding that Hu also pleaded not guilty to stealing commercial secrets.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith chastised China for keeping the country's diplomats out of the trial on commercial espionage allegations and said he was not expecting a verdict for days.

Canberra said in a statement that consular officials would be present when the court reconvened to announce its verdict.

"The Chinese legal system is vastly different from the Australian legal system," Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Wednesday. "We'll be watching this very closely."

In London, Britain's serious fraud office said it was "assessing" information about the trial. No other details were available.

The trial has strained ties between Australia and its largest trading partner, and has forced Rio Tinto, the world's No. 2 iron ore producer, to examine the way it conducts business in China.

"We would always investigate thoroughly any allegations of serious wrongdoing," Tony Shaffer, Rio Tinto's principal adviser for media relations, wrote in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.

Rio Tinto has been producing iron ore at full tilt, barely able to keep up with demand from China, which became its biggest customer last year, accounting for a quarter of its sales.

Days before the trial began, Rio Tinto signed a $2.9 billion deal with Chinese metals group Chinalco to develop an African iron ore mine. China boasts the world's largest steel industry and is consequently the top iron ore consumer.

Meanwhile, China National Offshore Oil Corp and BG Group signed Australia's biggest-ever liquefied natural gas supply deal Wednesday, a multi-billion dollar, 20-year contract.

Source: Global Times

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