Little information on status of the case, condition of traders; officials have still not formally filed any charges

For the families of the 21 Indian traders who were arrested in the southern Chinese port city of Shenzhen almost six months ago, the hardest part of their ordeal, in many ways, is the waiting.

Since Chinese customs authorities locked up the traders — following a January 8 raid, on diamond-smuggling charges amounting to $7.3 million — there has been little information for their families on the status of the case, the health and condition of those arrested, and even on the basic question of whether the traders are guilty of the alleged crimes.

Six months on, Chinese officials have still not formally filed any charges. But prison visits have been disallowed, families' lawyers have stopped communicating with them, and even the letters they receive from the Shenzhen jail are — as required by local law — in Chinese.

“We have been left with no help, no support and no information,” the wife of one of those arrested told The Hindu in an interview on Saturday. She requested anonymity, fearful of jeopardising her husband's case; she has been warned by her Chinese lawyers, as well as by local officials, to not discuss any details of the case.

She has only been allowed to visit her husband once since his arrest on the night of January 8 — a 20-minute visit to the crowded detention centre in early April. “We were told we could visit every month, but they are still not allowing me to see my husband,” she said.

Her husband has been kept in a cell with nine other foreigners — the 21 arrested Indians have all been kept away from each other. She said he had not been mistreated, but appeared to have lost a lot of weight: many of the traders are from the Jain community and are vegetarians.

Beyond the question of whether or not the diamond traders have, as officials claim, evaded paying duties and broken the law, the lack of transparency in the judicial process — not unusual in a legal system widely known for its opacity — has posed a challenge for Indian officials handling the case.

The case was raised by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna when he visited Beijing in April, and Chinese authorities have allowed three visits by consular officials.

Officials at the Indian embassy said they had been in regular touch with Chinese authorities over the case, and had last week formally written to the Chinese government demanding a second visit for the families to be arranged after earlier requests had been ignored.

But officials said they did not want to exert too much diplomatic pressure, citing recent high-profile cases involving foreigners where such an approach backfired. One case cited was that of Akmal Sheikh, a Pakistan-born British businessman who was arrested for drug-trafficking in 2007. He was executed in December, after months of public pressure from U.K. authorities for his release, citing doubts over his mental health.

Another recent case is that of Stern Hu, an Australian executive at mining giant Rio Tinto who was accused of stealing commercial secrets. As diplomatic relations between Australia and China strained over the case, the Chinese government's position seemed to harden.

‘Take pro-active role'

Diplomatic complexities, however, are little comfort for the families of the traders, who are calling on the government to take a more pro-active role in hastening the judicial process.

“We are pleading for the government to help us, or to at least keep us informed,” the wife of the arrested trader said. “We simply do not know what is going on.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Hindu in a faxed statement in March that investigations were still progressing. There has been no progress on the case since.

Under Chinese law, those charged with crimes can be held indefinitely, and there is no fixed time-frame within which charges have to be formally filed.

Lawyers familiar with the details of the case said the smuggling charges, as well as a recent trend of harsh penalties for economic crimes, could bring up to 15 years in prison for some of those arrested, though they cautioned against pre-judging the outcome given the arbitrariness of Chinese law.

“The outcome of such cases hinges on dozens of factors,” one legal expert said. “It depends on how Indian officials handle the case, whether the Chinese government wants to make an example out of this, and even on politics. The only thing we can say with some certainty is that in China, you can never really predict the outcome.”

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