Australia Worried China Rio Tinto Trial Will Be Unfair

Some lawmakers doubt mining executive charged with stealing business secrets would get a fair hearing because the individual would be tried in a closed court in China.

SYDNEY (AP) -- Australia expressed disappointment Thursday that charges of stealing business secrets against one of its citizens would be tried in a closed court in China, and some lawmakers doubted the mining executive involved would get a fair hearing.

Australian national Stern Hu is one of four employees of mining giant Rio Tinto who are due to face a court in Shanghai on Monday charged with stealing commercial secrets and taking bribes.

Hu and the others were arrested nine months ago. At the time, Rio Tinto was acting as lead negotiator for global iron ore suppliers in price talks with Chinese steel mills and Hu was Rio Tinto's senior executive in China in charge of iron ore. Few details of the allegations against the suspects have been made public.

Defense lawyer Tao Wuping said the hearing scheduled for Monday in Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court will probably not be open to media or the public since the charges involve business secrets.

"We are obviously very disappointed that that court will not be conducted in an open fashion and representations are being made to the Chinese government about that matter," Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters.

The case has strained relations between Australia and China, and a government spokesman in Beijing said it should not be politicized.

Some Australian legislators on Thursday alleged China's court system was controlled by the country's communist rulers and that the verdict may already have been decided.

"The sentence for Stern Hu will have been predetermined in Beijing," Sen. Bob Brown, leader of the minority Greens party, told reporters. "Australia needs to be, in the strongest terms ... telling China that it must open that trial."

Michael Danby, a government legislator who heads Parliament's foreign affairs subcommittee, warned that "prosecuting foreign businesspeople in this way damages China's political and economic relations with other countries."

Hu's "prosecution is essentially political in nature and if the Chinese Communist authorities decided that it was in their interests to drop the charges against him, they could and would do so," Danby said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the rights of those on trial in the case were being protected.

"This is just an individual business case. It should not be politicized or bring a negative impact on Australia-China relations," Qin told a regular news conference.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also suggested the trial could affect China's international reputation, saying "the world will be watching how this particular case is conducted."

Rio Tinto has repeatedly said it hopes the case will be handled quickly and transparently. Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese is due to be in China on Monday attending a forum on China's role in the world economy.

The trial is being closely watched in business circles, especially the mining and resources industry that is becoming increasingly dependent on China to drive global demand.

It also comes as Beijing tries to tighten control over China's dozens of steel producers and consolidate the industry through mergers. As with other important industries, the state owns many of the biggest steel mills and views their profitability as a strategic priority.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said consulate officials would attend open sessions of the trial involving the bribery allegation and had asked the court to reconsider its decision to keep sessions dealing with charges of infringing business secrets closed.

China treats a wide range of commercial information as state secrets. Chinese reports that the Rio employees were originally suspected of obtaining state secrets suggest they may have been caught up in an effort to control information exchanged during the iron ore talks.

Almost all criminal cases that go to trial in China end in conviction. The maximum penalty for commercial espionage is seven years in prison if the case is found to have caused extreme damage. The maximum penalty for taking large bribes is five years.

The trial begins as China is again bogged down in iron ore price negotiations with foreign miners.

As the world's biggest steel producer and consumer of iron ore, China has sought to convince Rio Tinto and other suppliers to give its mills lower prices than those paid by Japan and South Korea.

Elaine Kurtenbach reported from Shanghai. Associated Press researcher Ji Chen contributed to this report.

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