ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) -- Chinese police have concluded an investigation into four employees of mining giant Rio Tinto arrested on charges of infringing trade secrets and bribery and sent the case to prosecutors, the Australian government and Chinese state media said Monday.
Rio Tinto and the Australian government have urged China to allow the four, including Stern Hu, an Australian citizen who headed Rio Tinto's iron ore business in China, legal representation and to handle the case in a transparent way.
Authorities informed Australia's consulate in Shanghai on Monday that the investigation was finished and the case sent to the city's prosecutors office, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement.
"We are not in a position to say how long this phase of the case will take, and are not prepared to speculate about the outcome," the statement said.
China's official Xinhua News Agency confirmed the suspected charges in a brief report and said the four had been handed over for prosecution.
Hu and the three other employees were detained last July on charges of bribery and commercial espionage during iron ore price talks. They were charged in August with paying bribes to obtain confidential information about China's steel industry.
The case has strained ties between China and Australia, which is a key supplier of iron ore and other resources for China's fast-growing economy.
"The Australian government continues to take a close interest in the case. At every opportunity we have emphasized to the Chinese authorities the need for the case to be handled transparently and expeditiously," the foreign affairs department said.
Sam Walsh, Rio Tinto's chief executive for iron ore, said the transfer to the prosecutor was in line with the Chinese legal process.
"It would not be appropriate for the company to comment any further at this point in the case other than to reaffirm our hope that matters proceed in an expeditious and transparent manner," he said in a statement.
Walsh said the company is in regular contact with the families of the detained employees.
Associated Press Business Writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Shanghai contributed to this story.