Rio Tinto trial moves behind closed doors

The trial of the four Rio Tinto executives facing bribery and espionage charges in China moved behind closed doors today as the court heard evidence that Stern Hu, an Australian national, and his three Chinese colleagues, had stolen commercial secrets.

On Monday, three of the mining giants’ employees, including Mr Hu, admitted taking bribes from Chinese steel mills during negotiations over setting the annual iron ore price. The three are expected to challenge the amounts, while Wang Yong’s lawyers told reporters that their clients rejected the charge and that payments he received were legitimate bonuses.

The trial is expected to close later tomorrow, with prosecutors pushing for jail sentences of as long as five years if the court finds the four guilty. A number of analysts have suggested however, that Monday’s guilty pleas are in recognition of a plea bargain.

Rio Tinto has consistently refused to comment on the case, but soon after the four were detained last July, the company said it was sure the charges were “without foundation”.

The trial is hugely embarrassing for the company, which counts China as its biggest client. The group has been at pains not to criticise China and, speaking in Beijing on Monday, its chief executive Tom Albanese told a delegation of Chinese officials: “I can only say we respectfully await the outcome of the Chinese legal process. 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 arrests came just a month after Rio Tinto rejected a $18.5bn proposed investment from Chinese aluminum producer Chinalco, which was already the mining group’s biggest backer. The company turned down the offer, which would have helped them pay off what was then a burgeoning debt pile. Since rejecting Chinalco’s approach, Rio Tinto has sold off a number of assets.