FOUR Australians are among 19 staff and associates of Crown Resorts who each face a maximum of 10 years in jail in a closed courtroom trial on the outskirts of Shanghai tomorrow, the bitter end of the company’s ill-fated bid for a slice of China’s massive casino market in Macau.
Chinese lawyers have tipped that the staff, who include Melbourne father of two Jason O’Connor, and who have been held in brutal detention centres for the past nine months, will be hit with sentences of three years or less after being charged with “gambling crimes” on June 18.
But they could avoid the additional charge of “money laundering” which is seen as even more serious.
Shanghai-based criminal lawyer Si Weijiang, partner at Debund Law Firm told News Corp “The defendants will be convicted — 99 per cent of the cases are convicted.”
But he predicted that the final judgment would be less than three years.
Jin Chunyu, partner at Shanghai Bright and Young Law Firm agreed.
“The usual legal punishment of this crime is no more than three years in prison and a fine if the crime isn’t ‘serious’, and if it is, then above three years and no more than 10 years with a fine,” he said.
But there has been no indication from any official sources whether the courts will decide the crime is in the serious category.
Apart from Mr O’Connor, Crown’s VIP Operations vice president, the other Australian detainees are Jerry Xuan, Jenny Pan Dan and an unknown person believed to have worked for a company involved with Crown’s strategy of enticing high-rollers to gamble at Crown properties, a marketing activity that is illegal on the mainland.
The architect of Crown’s China strategy, Hong Kong-based Michael Chen, who was not in China when the raids occurred, left the company earlier this year.
Still, the end results of previous trials of Australian businessmen in the Middle Kingdom’s opaque legal system — where experts say secretive Communist Party committees instruct prosecutors and judges on charges and sentencing— have proven hard to predict.
Lawyers believe that the best guide to the fate of the Crown staffers is a similar mass trial for employees of a South Korean gambling group charged with similar crimes after 18 months in detention, with some gaining immediate freedom as their sentences fell within the time already served in detention.
If sentenced to remain in jail Mr O’Connor and Mr Xuan — who have not seen their families since their detention — would join Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu in Shanghai’s Qingpu prison and would only be permitted a visit from family once a month.
Ms Pan would serve any time in a separate women’s prison.
Despite mining company Rio Tinto paying former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a reported US$5 million (A$6.61 million) to lobby Chinese authorities, in 2009 the group’s chief China iron ore salesman Stern Hu was found guilty of talking bribes and industrial espionage. He was expected by some observers to get a sentence as short as two years, but remains in jail serving an 11-year term in Shanghai.
The family of Australian Matthew Ng, an online travel entrepreneur was similarly shocked when he received a 13-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement in the southern city of Guangzhou. Mr Ng’s sentence was later reduced and he became the first Australian to serve out the end of his sentence in Australia under a prisoner exchange deal.
But Crown executives, including former Australian Labor Party chief Karl Bitar who has been in Shanghai, are understood to be focused on winning a non-custodial sentence for the Australian employees similar to that handed to Peter Humphrey, an executive of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline who was held in detention for 23 months.
The trial will presided over by judge Zhang Kai and two other judges in Room No. 1 at the Criminal court branch of the Baoshan People’s Court, 30 km from downtown Shanghai, a location locals have described as “the middle of nowhere”.
The court is beside the Baoshan Detention Centre where several Crown staff detained for this case, including Mr O’Connor, are rumoured to be held.
It is one of the smaller, more low-key courts in Shanghai.
Along with sentences for its employees, Crown and its shareholders also face the prospect of further financial pain if a large fine is imposed.
In China’s murky legal system its unclear how much this could be but GSK paid $492 million to settle its case.
The coordinated swoop on Crown in four Chinese cities last October has seen billions of dollars wiped off the market value of the group, and the fortune of its largest shareholder — Sydney-based billionaire James Packer — tumble as the company has been forced to roll-back its Asia-centric strategy and retreat to Australia as its primary market.
Since then Crown’s chairman Rob Rankin has stepped down, its chief executive Rowen Craigie has departed and Mr Packer has returned to the board.
By Michael Sainsbury
News Corp Australia Network