SFO looks to investigate Rio's role in bribery case

The Serious Fraud Office said yesterday that it was "assessing" the case of the four Rio Tinto executives whose bribery and espionage trial closed in Shanghai yesterday, and whether their guilty pleas warranted an investigation in the UK.

A verdict in the case in China could take a number of weeks. Three of the four Rio employees, including an Australian national, Stern Hu, have pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. The final two days of the hearing were held in secret as Shanghai People's Court No 1 considered corporate espionage charges. It is not known how the four pleaded. A lawyer for one accused, Wang Yong, said an unnamed suspect had not contested the charges.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto said the Anglo-Australian mining giant was not aware of any SFO investigation.

The company has previously refused to comment on the case, but yesterday moved to distance itself from the four. "We have strict ethical guidelines to cover this sort of behaviour, which we expect all our employees to follow," said the spokesman. "We try and rigorously enforce these rules throughout the company."

In recent days, Rio Tinto has refused to say whether it still employs the four defendants. When they were first detained last July, it said the arrests were "without foundation".

The Sydney-based newspaper The Australian reported yesterday that an internal investigation by Rio Tinto had found no wrongdoing on the firm's part, although this is unlikely to weigh heavily with any SFO inquiry.

The trial, and any subsequent investigation by British authorities would be highly embarrassing for Rio Tinto. The four staff were initially detained a month after the company spurned a $18.5bn investment bid from the state-owned Chinese aluminium group Chinalco. Some analysts believe the trial is politically motivated and the guilty pleas were part of plea bargain. Prosecutors are pressing for sentences of up to five years.

Rio Tinto is keen to avoid upsetting Beijing officials over the trial because it is involved in delicate negotiations about setting the annual iron ore price with leading Chinese steel mills.

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