Rio Tinto Group

Sham trial does more harm than good, again

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 March, 2010, 12:00am

Beijing could have used the trial of Australian mining executive Stern Hu and three Chinese colleagues to prove its pledges of legal reform were genuine. Instead, the manner in which it was conducted shows fundamental flaws remain. Like countless previous cases, the process has been a sham. The way it was handled may have achieved the narrow political and economic goals of those in power but the mainland takes a step backward each time the courts deny defendants the opportunity to test evidence against them in open hearings.

The outcome leaves more questions than answers. Harsh sentences were imposed by a panel of judges in the Shanghai court, despite all four being given reductions for confessions of guilt. The 10-year jail term for Hu was the focus of criticism by the Australian government. Rio Tinto, the company involved, had no hesitation in sacking them, contending it was satisfied that they had received bribes as charged. But at issue is not their innocence or guilt: the lack of transparency and accountability means that the trial was not fair and therefore justice cannot be seen to have been done.

Fundamentals of due legal process were absent. The four were held without bail for seven months before charges were laid. Their access to lawyers was limited and, in Hu's case, there was only occasional opportunity to meet Australian diplomats. Confessions obtained in such circumstances cannot possibly be seen as valid.

The commercial secrets part of the trial was held behind closed doors. Authorities said the reason was protection of state interests. The charges indicated annual price negotiations for iron ore were involved. Major losses were made by China's steel industry because of the crimes committed, the lead judge said. The sentences were meant to 'protect market order and the normal management of business'. This may be the case for Chinese companies, but it can hardly be said to be so for foreign firms: the lack of openness and the denial of consular and public access means that they still don't know for sure when and if they are breaking the law.

Rio Tinto's employees have been jailed, but there is no evidence the people they are said to have taken bribes and secrets from have also been charged. If receiving bribes is a serious crime, those offering them should be at least as harshly punished. Tycoons and powerful companies were named in court papers. If the rule of law is to have any meaning, they also must appear before judges.

There are strong indications of political interference. The conduct of the case has been monitored, observed or influenced at the highest levels. No trial can be politicised. To do so is to infringe a basic legal tenet - impartiality. Beijing has thumbed its nose at foreign governments and companies with the sentences. It has been impervious to international criticism - even though the interest of another nation's citizens and an important trading partner were involved. Officials may be satisfied with the outcome, but their inability to meet expectations means that only harm has been done.