The 19 former and current Crown Resorts employees detained in China since October have finally been charged after eight months of limbo and uncertainty.
The good news is they’ve been charged with “gambling crimes,” rather than the far more serious crime of money-laundering, which comes with a far harsher sentence.
Shanghai-based criminal lawyer Si Weijiang told the Financial Times that if they are convicted, which is likely, they can expect a prison sentence of three years or less. Si said that over 99 per cent of suspects are found guilty in such cases.
In a brief statement to the Australian Securities Exchange, Crown confirmed the case had been referred to the Baoshan District Court.
The employees were detained by Chinese authorities in least four Chinese cities on October 13 and 14 and taken to the Number One Detention Centre in Shanghai, where they have languished ever since.
Among them are three Australian citizens, including Jason O’Connor, Crown’s vice president of International VIP programs.
China is in the midst of an anti-gambling crackdown and has promised “severe punishment” to those found marketing gambling, which is illegal on the Chinese mainland, to its citizens.
The chances are good, though, that the Crown staff will receive similar sentences to the 14 South Korean nationals arrested for promoting gambling in 2015 who received 18 months’ imprisonment. These included representatives of Paradise Co and Grand Korea Leisure Co, two of South Korea’s largest operators.
Lawrence Ho, who until recently was in business with Crown in the joint venture Melco-Crown, said recently that the Australian operator had gone too far and had been too brazen in its engagement with Chinese citizens within China,upsetting the Chinese government.
“That’s what caught their attention: ‘like what the hell, you’re deliberately spitting on our faces’,” said Ho.
The arrests proved to be devastating for Crown’s business in the region. The company initiated a complete withdrawal of its investment exposure to Macau by selling its equity in Melco-Crown back to Ho, and a major reshuffle of the Crown board swiftly followed.
It even began selling off its fleet of private jets and yachts, which had been used to transport Chinese VIPs to and from its properties.
“Crown Resorts ceased all traditional marketing in the region following the arrests, which has weighed on VIP gambling revenues,” Morningstar analyst Daniel Ragonese told the Financial Times. “I believe it will take a number of years before the market is fully recovered.”