March 30th, 2010
04:57 AM GMT
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Shanghai, China (CNN) – On Monday, CNN was among a handful of other foreign and local press allowed into a Chinese courtroom for the reading of the verdict of four employees of foreign mining giant, Rio Tinto.

The hearings had been closed to the public, and even for this access – no doubt due to the extraordinary attention foreign media have given the case – we were allowed to watch only by video monitor from a neighboring court room.

Before going through the metal detector and putting our bags through an X-ray machine, we were asked to remove all recording devices and cameras. We were led up to the seventh floor of the court building, and taken to a room where a total of 34 foreign and local journalists sat in front of two large screens, showing images from the Courtroom No. 1 on the second floor, where the verdict would be read.

A court employee, a young woman, sternly asked us to turn off our mobile phones, and warned that if anyone was caught using them, the phones would be confiscated.

The defense lawyers looked anxious when the clerk called on all to rise as the three judges entered. The judges, wearing dark uniforms, faced the four defendants, who were dressed in street clothes. Then the defendants - Stern Hu, an Australian citizen, along with Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang and Liu Caikui – walked in.

Though difficult to make out their expressions, it was striking to see Stern Hu’s hair was almost completely white, a startling counterpoint to the dark-haired photographs that had been in the press (whether those photographs were dated or his eight months incarcerated had aged him is impossible for me to say).

The head judge, Liu Xing, began reading the verdict at 2pm sharp, and the four defendants were allowed to sit down during the reading.

Reporters strained to hear and struggled to take notes as the chief judge detailed every bribe the defendants accepted, and the companies, individuals and amounts involved. All incidents centered around the Rio employees helping get the Chinese steel mills favorable terms and contracts for iron ore. All told, the employees were accused of accepting about $13.6 million over a five-year period from more than 10 Chinese companies (Hu was charged with taking about $1 million in bribes from two firms in the past two years).

In the 40-minute reading of the verdict, the judge also detailed the charges of obtaining commercial secrets, a total of eight instances, the most recent of which was last June. The court went said their action had seriously compromised the positions of Chinese steel enterprises negotiating for annual iron-ore prices with Rio Tinto and caused them huge losses, making them overpay $150 million iron ore – a commodity vital for the making of steel.

In closing, the judge announced that the four defendants had used improper means to obtain commercial secrets. But at the same time Stern Hu, Ge Minqiang, and Liu Caikui had “truthfully given accounts of taking bribes,” amounting to turning oneself in, so they would be sentenced leniently. Stern Hu had returned all the money he accepted, and the other defendants had returned most the cash.

At 2:40 pm, the defendants were asked to rise. I could see no expression at all on their faces as the sentences were read out: Hu would serve 10 years, 14 years for Wang, eight years for Ge and seven years for Liu. All also had to pay substantial fines.

After the judge finished reading, he announced that the defendants had ten days to appeal. We were then allowed to leave the room and turn our phones on.

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