Crown 19 set to plead guilty in Chinese court


Crown Resorts staff including executive Jason O’Connor are expected to plead guilty when their court case is heard on Monday in Baoshan District Court, outside Shanghai.

The trial of the 19 Crown staff and former staff is expected to be heard in one day, with a verdict issued this week.

Family members of the Crown employees arrived at the court in a fleet of silver vans, wearing smog masks and dark glasses as a shield from media cameras. They were shepherded from the vans and through a media throng in small groups by Crown security consultants.

Jenny Jiang, who had arranged visas for Crown clients and was one of only three defendants on bail, arrived with her husband Jeff Sikima.

An army of lawyers arrived one by one, then in larger groups, each forced to wait for the small security door to the court and detention complex to be opened. Asked about the condition of his clients, lawyer Zhai Jian replied “pretty good”.

One family member said he was hoping for a verdict of a suspended sentence.

Australian media aren’t expected to gain access to a courtroom crowded with the family of the 19 accused. The Baoshan District Court says it will instead provide public updates on its official Weibo social media account.

The four Australians, including Crown’s vice-president of VIP Operations Mr O’Connor, Jerry Xuan and Jenny Pan Dan, are expected to plead guilty. They will be spared the full glare of the Chinese legal system’s recent embrace of live broadcasting to social media, which can draw millions of viewers to high-profile cases.

In a similar trial of South Korean casino staff last year, the defendants were released within days of a sentenced being handed down by the Chinese court. But it had taken the Slith Korean cases around 16 months to go to court, during which time the casino staff were in detention, so they were released on time served.

The Crown case, by contrast, has taken just eight months to reach court, which may fall short of any sentence to be imposed.

Fourteen Crown staff and two former employees have been in detention in Shanghai since October, when they were scooped up in a series of police raids.

Crown has hired top Chinese lawyer Liu Haitao, of King & Wood Mallesons. He is credited with helping GlaxoSmithKline executives avoid prison in a 2014 bribery case that saw the British pharmaceutical company fined  $US492 million ($650 million).

Crown executive Karl Bitar has been in Shanghai in the lead-up to the court date. Mr Bitar is a former Labor national secretary, who led a delegation of Labor figures to meet with the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee in Beijing in January 2011, a few months before he quit to join Crown.

A court official said the Crown case won’t be broadcast live.

Typically in such broadcasts, the defendants, who are almost always found guilty, appear with heads bowed.

Since 2014, 439,000 trials had been broadcast live on the internet, attracting a combined 1.7 billion viewers, according to a recent Chinese government white paper.

The Supreme People’s Court had 33 million Weibo “fans” by the end of 2016, while more than 3200 courts had social media accounts, of which 1389 local courts were offering real-time broadcasting and video that could be shared by mobile phone.

Observers of China’s legal system are split on whether the embrace of technology represents an invasion of privacy or a boost for transparency.

For political cases, such as this month’s sentencing in a Dalian local court of three employees of the flamboyant Chinese tycoon-in-exile Guo Wengui, the live broadcasts and rapid release of video packaged for social media can contribute to the appearance of a show trial.

Seven years ago, the trial of Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu was held largely behind closed doors, with Australian consular staff blocked from key parts of the hearing and foreign media only permitted to watch the verdict on closed-circuit TV.

Hu’s 10-year sentence for accepting bribes and stealing commercial secrets came as a shock to the Australian government, with then foreign minister Stephen Smith describing it as “harsh”.

By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald


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