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August 20, 2009

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Arrested Rio workers appear well: attorneys

THREE arrested Chinese employees of Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto appeared healthy and calm, their lawyers said yesterday after visiting them earlier this week - the first such meetings since they were picked up in a commercial spying probe.

"He was calm and appeared normal," said Tao Wuping, the defense lawyer of Liu Caikui, one of Rio's four Shanghai-based sales staff detained a month ago.

"He told me about his role in the case and what the police asked him after I explained to him the legal procedures and the charges as he requested," Tao told Reuters via telephone.

The attorney declined to disclose further details.

The four were formally arrested last week.

Diplomat inquires

The three Chinese employees of Rio were arrested along with the company's sales manager in Shanghai, Stern Hu, an Australian citizen. They face charges of stealing commercial secrets.

It was unclear whether Hu also received a visit from a lawyer. His attorney is currently abroad.

But visiting Australian Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson said in Beijing he and Chinese officials discussed Hu's case.

Ferguson stressed that the talk focused on procedural points, not the substance of the charges.

Hu and his three colleagues were detained in early July, shortly after a deadline passed without agreement in iron ore price negotiations between the Chinese steel industry and miners Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Vale.

"I think there was a constructive discussion ... going into the consular aspects of the case and our desire just to see it handled as expeditiously as possible under Chinese law," Ferguson said.

Charges against the four were downgraded to allegations of illegally obtaining commercial secrets and bribery from suspicion of stealing state secrets, which can carry the death penalty in the most serious cases.

The commercial secrets charge can bring jail terms of up to three years, or seven years in "especially serious" cases.

"The authorities changed the charges during the investigation, and the move benefits my clients," said Tao, who also defended Shanghai property developer Zhou Zhengyi in a high-profile corruption case.

Tao said he had not read any documents about the case, as it had just been transferred from the state security agency to the public security agency and was still under investigation.

Lawyers representing the other two detained Chinese nationals said yesterday that they had met their clients and confirmed that they appeared to be well.


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