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Australia Urged to Sign Prisoner Exchange Deal with China

An Australian mining executive jailed in China for bribery and spying could soon be heading home as part of a prisoner exchange program. The case of Stern Hu, a senior Rio Tinto negotiator who was jailed for 10 years in March 2010, caused a diplomatic rift between Canberra and Beijing, which are expected to soon finalize an prisoner exchange treaty.

China has already signed the prisoner exchange treaty and now a powerful committee of lawmakers in Canberra is urging Australia to do the same. The accord will now be submitted to the parliament.

The bilateral agreement would allow Chinese nationals held in Australian jails to seek repatriation and serve their sentences back home. The same would apply for Australians incarcerated in China once the consent of both governments had been given. Officials have warned the process could be lengthy.

There are an estimated 25 Australians imprisoned in China, including the former Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, while a further 16 citizens are in detention awaiting trial or sentencing. Australia’s justice department in Canberra said it did not have an estimate of how many Chinese nationals are being held in Australian prisons.

Hu was jailed in March 2010 for accepting illegal payments and infringing commercial secrets. Under the inmate exchange deal, Hu would be able to apply to return to Australia to serve out his 10-year sentence, which was at the time described as “very harsh” by the government in Canberra.

The case destabilized diplomatic ties between the two trading partners but the president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Stephen Keim, says any prisoner exchange agreement could allow Hu to be released early.

“It may well be that the Chinese would feel very badly about admitting that they were wrong in some way and agreeing to release him. But if he is exchanged to Australia and Australia chooses to grant him parole or someway ameliorate the sentence then China would be able to say ‘well, that is really not our business, that is Australia’s business.’ So it may be a good way of getting around diplomatic difficulties that may be difficult to get around in a more direct way,” said Keim.

Relations between China and Australia have improved markedly since Hu was imprisoned.

Australian officials still raise concerns over China's treatment of ethnic minorities, questions of religious freedom and the crackdown on human rights activists. However those political disagreements have not adversely affected trade.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner and its appetite for commodities, most notably iron ore and coal, is helping to underwrite strong economic growth in Australia.

Keen not to offend Beijing, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week refused to meet exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, who is considered by the Chinese to be a dangerous separatist.