More than 600 days after 22 Indian traders were taken into detention on diamond-smuggling charges in the southern Chinese port city of Shenzhen, authorities have ordered additional investigations into the case before the traders can be sentenced, leaving their long-suffering families with the likelihood of a further wait to discover their fate.

Officials told The Hindu that prosecutors in Shenzhen have launched further investigations and are examining links to related cases. Six months ago, families had been told they could expect a ruling from the court “within weeks”.

The 22 traders, who were detained on January 8, 2010 and accused of evading up to $7.3 million in customs duties, have now been in custody for more than a year and eight months without being sentenced for their alleged crimes, according to officials and family members.

Family members have questioned the Indian government's handling of the case. “We are in touch with Consular officials, but we feel at the level of the government, they should be doing more to help the case,” said one relative, who declined to be named in fear of jeopardising the case.

Initially, officials said they did not want to press the Chinese authorities too hard in expediting the case, pointing to similar cases involving foreign nationals where such a strategy backfired, leading to harsher sentences being handed down.

But a year and eight months on, that approach is being increasingly questioned. Lawyers in Beijing and Shanghai The Hindu spoke to said such a wait was unusual for a case of this nature, involving foreign nationals, particularly as prosecutors had claimed they had gathered all the evidence and planned the January 2010 raid for months. Under Chinese law, suspects can be held for up to one month without being formally charged for crimes. Prosecutors can, however, seek an extension while investigations are ongoing.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing told The Hindu in a statement, issued in response to questions over the status of the case, that the Middle People's Court in Shenzhen was “handling the case in accordance with the law”, and had kept Indian officials updated with the development of the case and arranged visits for officials.

“Results of the trial will be delivered to India's Consul General in Guangzhou in time,” said the statement. “The Chinese authorities have been dealing with the case in accordance with the law in a fair manner. We ensure suspects' rights to appeal, and have taken care of them in terms of their religious beliefs, culture and dining habits in a humanitarian spirit.”

Willing to pay fines

Family members said the traders, and their companies, have told Chinese authorities they are willing to pay the necessary fines, and have asked them to avoid further delays in announcing the judgment.

Some of the traders are thought to be in poor health. Most are Jains and vegetarians, and have found living conditions at the Shenzhen detention centre difficult. Families say over the past year and a half, they have been left with little information about the status of the case — a complaint, according to Indian officials, that is not unusual in the often opaque Chinese judicial system.

Indian officials said they have arranged up to five visits for families, pointing out that visits were often not granted to Chinese nationals themselves, under local laws. Indian officials are currently in talks with Shenzhen authorities over arranging another visit in coming weeks, in time for the families to have a difficult Diwali reunion in Shenzhen.

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