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BEIJING: Judicial authorities in Shenzhen last week held a hearing for the 22 Indian traders who have been detained in the southern Chinese port city for more than one year, charged with diamond-smuggling.
The Shenzhen Intermediate Court is expected to announce sentences for them within the next three weeks, officials said. The traders, from Gujarat and Mumbai, face the prospect of receiving heavy fines, running into several million dollars (U.S.), as well as possible jail terms for allegedly evading customs duties.
The traders have been held in a detention centre in Shenzhen since January 8, 2010, when they were arrested following a raid by customs authorities.
Kin clueless on case
Since then, their families have been left with little information about the status of the case. Local prosecutors took more than one year to complete the investigation and formally file charges. The families have criticised the slow judicial process, which, officials said, was not unusual in the often opaque Chinese judicial system.
At a week-long hearing, which concluded last week, the traders' families were given a rare glimpse into the judicial proceedings. Officials from the Indian Consulate in Guangzhou also attended the hearing.
According to several family members who were present at the hearing, most of the 22 traders have been charged with commercial crimes, while the companies they were working for were charged with higher criminal offences.
“This raises our hopes that the sentence will be less than what we originally feared,” one of the family members told The Hindu.
Following a request from Indian officials, the Shenzhen authorities allowed the family members to attend the hearing — a concession often not granted to Chinese citizens who run afoul of the law.
Hearing in auditorium
The hearing was held in a large auditorium to accommodate them, rather than in the usual courthouse. More than 60 family-members and friends were present.
The traders are likely to face heavy fines. A report in a Shenzhen newspaper, citing local prosecutors, said they had evaded customs duties up to $7.3 million. If the traders' companies, which are based in Gujarat, fail to pay the fines, they could face lengthy jail terms, officials said.
At the end of last week's hearing, the traders were allowed five minutes with their families who have been granted three visits to the detention centre since the arrests last January.
“We are pleading for leniency,” a family member said. “Many of them were only in their 20s, and none of them has a criminal record.”
“Some of the traders are in poor health,” family members said. Many of them are vegetarians and from the Jain community, and have struggled to adjust to the living conditions at the detention centre.
At the hearing, one Hong Kong resident was also charged with smuggling the diamonds into Shenzhen. Officials said the Indian traders would likely be charged with the lesser offence of receiving the smuggled diamonds without paying duties, and not with the crime of smuggling, which could face a heavier sentence of even up to 15 years.
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