A British corporate investigator embroiled in GlaxoSmithKline’s Chinese corruption scandal has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for his part in a saga that has shone a light on the risks facing foreign business people in China.
Peter Humphrey was found guilty on Friday of illegally obtaining personal information on Chinese citizens, together with his American wife, Yu Yingzeng, who was jailed for two years. Mr Humphrey will be deported, although his wife will be allowed to remain in China after serving her prison term.
The pair were detained more than a year ago following work they did for GSK to help the UK drugmaker identify the source of a secretly filmed sex tape of its top executive in China in bed with his girlfriend.
The video – apparently intended to smear the executive – had been sent to Sir Andrew Witty, GSK chief executive, together with allegations of corruption by the company.
Mr Humphrey’s case was lurid subplot to a broader scandal surrounding GSK, which was accused by Chinese authorities last year of funnelling billions of renminbi in bribes to doctors and officials.
But it has also highlighted efforts by Beijing to clamp down on the private detectives who help foreign clients navigate Chinese business, amid a broader push by regulators to clip the wings of multinational companies operating in the country.
The Humphrey verdict follows the arrest this week of a Canadian couple accused of spying. Regulators have also launched aggressive anti-monopoly probes against a range of foreign companies from Microsoft to Mercedes-Benz.
GSK’s name went unmentioned in court on Friday, with prosecutors instead asking about other investigations carried out by ChinaWhys, the risk consultancy run by the couple, with colourful names such as “Operation Clown” and “Operation Goose”.
Mr Humphrey was charged under a law passed in 2009 that makes it a crime to obtain personal information. His sentence was just short of the three-year maximum.
Asked in court whether he disputed the basic facts that the prosecutor outlined, Mr Humphrey said he did not, according to a partial transcript posted by the Shanghai First Intermediate People’s Court on its official Weibo microblog account.
Acquittals are rare in China’s criminal justice system, even more so for high-profile cases with political ramifications. The Supreme People’s Court reported a 99.9 per cent conviction rate for 2012.
The Shanghai court initially said the trial would be secret, but reversed this decision following pressure from the US and UK, both of which expressed concerns about a lack of transparency in the proceedings.
But even at the “open trial”, foreign media were excluded from the courtroom. Court staff tried to force journalists gathered in the media room to delete photos of Mr Humphrey that were taken when a live television feed from the courtroom briefly appeared on a projector screen, apparently by accident.
Mr Humphrey acknowledged paying consultants for recordings of phone calls of individuals he investigated on behalf of corporate clients, according to the transcript.
The prosecutor repeatedly asked how much Mr Humphrey had paid for the illegal information, to which Mr Humphrey replied that he had paid a fee for the service, not for specific information.
The prosecutor sought to portray Mr Humphrey and three consultants, who are facing prosecution in a separate case, as individuals involved in a conspiracy. But Mr Humphrey countered that they were companies engaged in what he thought was a legitimate commercial transaction.
GSK has declined to comment on the trial. The drugmaker said in July that the issues relating to its China business were “very difficult and complicated”.
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