Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The trial of two foreign investigators in a Shanghai court today lasted almost 12 hours with the couple telling a judge they didn’t knowingly violate Chinese laws when they sought personal information about the subjects of their inquiries.
Briton Peter Humphrey and his American wife, Yu Yingzeng, were accused of illegally obtaining personal information on Chinese citizens. During the proceedings, prosecutors questioned the couple on methods used by their firm, ChinaWhys, to obtain information.
“From the face of things the facts aren’t wrong, but to the allegations, I don’t understand China’s laws, so I am not in the position to discuss,” the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate Court’s microblog quoted Humphrey as saying in response to court questions on whether allegations made towards him were true or not.
GlaxoSmithKline Plc, which has said it hired the firm last year, wasn’t mentioned in the court’s posts. Prosecutors accused the couple of illegally obtaining more than 250 pieces of personal information and selling them to multinational companies, according to the court’s microblog posts.
Humphrey said that he didn’t buy information, according to the microblog transcript, adding that the money he paid was for services provided by vendors. Yu took the stand in the afternoon.
“I never knew that information gotten from a third party is violating the law,” she said. “Our information is third hand, we didn’t know the original source of the information.”
The trial began at 9:30 a.m. and ended almost 12 hours later, with breaks in between for meals.
In other places like Hong Kong, it was possible to obtain information about citizens, “so we didn’t think that doing the same thing in China would be against the law,” she said.
Since Xi took over China’s Communist Party in 2012, government agencies have unveiled investigations into prominent targets such as the country’s former security chief, a popular television host and Glaxo’s former China head, Mark Reilly. In doing so, it has displayed a willingness to act against even well-connected officials and foreign business people, who are often seen as having greater immunity.
“It’s pretty clear that no one -- from government officials to foreigners -- is immune to the party’s campaign to clean up shop,” said Kevin Jones, Shanghai-based partner at law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP ahead of the trial. “Companies and executives need to be more aware that just because something was tolerated in the past doesn’t mean that it will continue to be tolerated in the future.” Jones isn’t involved with their case.
The couple’s indictment is the first Chinese prosecutors have announced of foreigners for an illegal investigation, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Their trial has attracted attention in China’s foreign community as it highlights both the increasing pressures on operating in China and because of Humphrey’s links to GlaxoSmithKline. After initial concern that the trial would take place behind closed doors, the court announced it would be held in public. Throughout the day, transcripts of the proceedings were posted on the court’s microblog in long sections.
Calls to China’s State Council Information Office, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice were not answered. The phone numbers listed on the website of the couple’s firm, ChinaWhys, were disconnected.
Humphrey had worked in China for decades. He was a foreign correspondent with the Reuters news agency -- now part of Thomson Reuters Corp. -- and was later head of China investigations with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The British national started ChinaWhys with his wife in 2003, offering services such as vetting of business partners and “discreet gathering of timely business intelligence,” according to the ChinaWhys website.
The couple was detained in July last year about three months after Glaxo says it hired the firm.
In May this year Chinese police accused Glaxo and Reilly of ordering sales people to bribe doctors and hospitals to boost sales, handing the case to prosecutors. Reilly couldn’t be reached for comment on his mobile phone. In a July 3 statement on its website, Glaxo said it was cooperating with authorities.
Glaxo said in the July 3 statement that its China unit hired ChinaWhys in April last year to investigate a security breach linked to its then China head, not to investigate whistle blower allegations. Glaxo spokesman Simon Steel declined to comment beyond that statement on the company’s relationship with Humphrey or on the bribery case.
The U.K.’s Sunday Times reported in June that Humphrey was hired by Glaxo last year after a clandestinely-recorded sex-tape of Reilly was sent to the drug maker’s senior staff. “We can confirm there is a tape,” Steel said by phone in June, declining to comment on its contents.
Of 1.1 million criminal defendants whose cases were closed in 2011, only 891 were acquitted, according to data from the Supreme People’s Court website, putting the conviction rate in China at 99.9 percent.
The Humphrey case is one of the most high profile cases involving foreigners in at least four years. A Shanghai court sentenced Stern Hu, an Australian executive who led Rio Tinto Group’s China iron ore unit, to 10 years jail in 2010 after he was found guilty of taking bribes from steel mills and infringing commercial secrets.