Ananth Krishnan

BEIJING: The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it had “no information” on the status of 21 Indian traders who have been kept in detention in Shenzhen for 50 days.

The traders were among 33 foreigners detained in a raid on January 8. They are accused of smuggling diamonds worth $7.3 million (around Rs. 34 crore) from Hong Kong.

Last week, local prosecutors approved the arrest of 24 “smuggling bosses”. It is understood that 21 of them were Indians, while nine, from Hong Kong and China, have not been charged.

Local prosecutors said the Indians were found with diamonds worth 50 million yuan ($7.3 million), and accused them of sourcing at least 14,000 carats of diamonds illegally from Hong Kong, for sale on the Chinese market. The prosecutors allege the traders “controlled” the smuggling ring, working with “henchmen from Hong Kong”, according to a report in a local Shenzhen newspaper.

But unusually for a case involving foreign citizens, the Foreign Ministry has released no information on the status of the case, and whether the Indians will even be formally charged and sentenced.

The Foreign Ministry here has refused to answer questions from The Hindu at a regular press conferences on the status of the case, on at least three separate occasions since the traders were detained.

On Thursday, spokesperson Qin Gang said the Foreign Ministry “did not have information to provide” on the specific details of the case. He said: “We ask foreigners in China to accept China's laws.”

According to Chinese legal procedure, suspects can usually be kept in detention up to one month before being formally charged with a crime.

The one month-deadline, however, can be extended at the discretion of local prosecutors.

The Indian traders — most of them hailing from Gujarat —will have been in detention in Shenzhen for 50 days, as of this Friday. As yet, there has been no formal announcement on what charges they are being held on, and what sentences they will likely face.

Lawyers in Beijing said it would be “impossible” to estimate the length of sentences they will likely receive. “Sentences and fines in China are often arbitrary, depending on who is involved, what message the Chinese authorities want to send and how negotiations with the Indian government go,” said one Beijing-based lawyer who did not want to be named.

Insiders at the Shanghai Diamond Exchange told The Hindu last week that it was “common knowledge” that much of the bustling diamond trade in China's far south worked around the law, with traders illegally bringing in diamonds from Hong Kong to avoid paying duties and taxes.

Traders say the practice has been going on “for years”, and allege it was often undertaken with the tacit approval of local customs authorities. According to a report in the Shenzhen Daily, diamonds smuggled into Shenzhen accounted for 70 to 80 per cent of all the black diamonds in China.

It remains unclear why this particular racket was busted, in a raid involving more than 150 police officers. The sweep began on January 8 after a trader from Hong Kong, named Weng, was found entering Shenzhen with diamonds in his pockets, according to official reports. The Shenzhen Daily reported that an informant had tipped off customs officials in October, and local police worked undercover for two months before conducting the raid.

On Thursday, Mr. Qin said the “legitimate rights and interests” of the Indian traders would be protected, and that Chinese authorities would keep Indian embassy officials briefed on the progress of the case.

“We believe local authorities will handle the case according to law,” he said.