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March 28, 2010 12:00:00 AM
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A Chinese court will deliver its verdict Monday in the sensitive trial of four employees of mining giant Rio Tinto, concluding a case that reflects the murkiness of China's steel industry.

Australian executive Stern Hu and three Chinese staff were tried last week in a Shanghai court on charges of accepting bribes totalling around 13 million dollars and stealing trade secrets.

The defendants risk sentences of up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Hu, the head of the Anglo-Australian miner's Shanghai office, and the three Chinese men -- Wang Yong, Liu Caikui and Ge Minqiang -- pleaded guilty to taking money, and one admitted to commercial espionage, defence lawyers said.

The accused, however, disputed aspects of the charges against them, their lawyers said.

A prosecutor recommended Hu be given a lenient sentence after he apologised to the court and to Rio, saying he took more than 900,000 dollars to help friends, his lawyer Jin Chunqing said.

The court will deliver its verdict at 2:00 pm (0600 GMT) Monday, and Australia has said consular officials will be in court to hear the decision.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said the world is watching the trial, which has been widely seen as a test of the rule of law in China and has raised questions about doing business in the world's third-largest economy.

The four were arrested last July during contentious iron ore contract talks between top mining companies and the steel industry in China, the world's largest consumer of the raw material. Those talks collapsed.

During the three-day trial in China's financial centre, the court heard evidence that millions of yuan in bribes had been stuffed into bags and boxes for the accused, according to state media reports.

Hu took money from small private steel companies, which before the global financial crisis were locked out of buying iron ore from Rio because the Anglo-Australian miner prioritised large state-run steel giants, Jin said.

When the crisis hit in September 2008, demand for iron ore plummeted and the smaller players paid bribes "to squeeze into the club and join the buyers," he said.

Wang strongly objected to the bribery allegations, saying he simply borrowed the money from one of China's richest men, Du Shuanghua, the National Business Daily said.

Du, the former head of Shandong-based Rizhao Iron & Steel group, contradicted Wang's account during the trial, testifying he had paid the Rio employee nine million dollars for preferential treatment, the newspaper said.

Under Chinese law, the toughest sentence for non-government officials convicted of accepting bribes is 15 years in prison, while the maximum penalty for stealing commercial secrets is seven years, according to defence lawyers.

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