* Redefining the case as a commercial secrets leak instead of a State secrets leak has greatly tuned down the sensitivity of the issue, said Chen Fengying, an expert on trade law.
Tainted executives at Chinese steel companies are the next target, analysts said yesterday, as prosecutors continued investigating the case involving the world's second-largest mining group, Rio Tinto, and its Chinese negotiators.
Vice-Minister of Commerce Fu Ziying pledged yesterday that the case will be fair and in accordance with Chinese law.
The Chinese Iron & Steel Association, which represents the nation's steel companies, voiced support for further investigation.
"Senior executives supervising the ores trade in some Chinese steel companies are most likely to be targeted in the following investigations," an industrial informant told China Daily on condition of anonymity. "They work more closely with foreign companies than others."
Chinese prosecutors earlier approved the arrest of four employees of the Anglo-Australian miner's Shanghai office - Australian Stern Hu and Chinese nationals Liu Caikui, Ge Minqiang and Wang Yong - on alleged charges of illegally obtaining commercial secrets and bribery.
However, the previous accusations against the four for allegedly spying and stealing State secrets, which could lead to life imprisonment if convicted, were dropped.
Law experts said that the case is unlikely to be delayed, despite international pressure.
"The case will not get anything special with the pressure mounting these days, and we don't expect the prosecutors and the courts will let the case go on for a long time," said Zhao Bingzhi, director of the law science society of criminal law research at Beijing Normal University.
Phoenix TV quoted Xiao Jinquan, a lawyer with the Beijing Dacheng Law Firm, as saying prosecutors must already have solid evidence to charge the suspects, and that the case, if a trial does go ahead, may be decided in two months.
Zhang Peihong, the lawyer representing Wang Yong, one of the four employees arrested, said yesterday that he was waiting for permission to meet his client, who is in police custody.
China Business News, a financial daily in Shanghai, also revealed that Stern Hu may hire a veteran lawyer from Beijing, while the others will be represented by lawyers in Shanghai.
Overseas parties yesterday said Chinese authorities might have backed away from their accusations, but law experts said that instead of being "downgraded", the charges have just been "redefined as a commercial criminal case".
"It is not a compromise from the authorities, because the case itself belongs clearly to the business category," said Chen Fengying, an expert on trade law with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
Although some intelligence leaked in the case may concern national security, the distinction is not always clear, given current laws.
"Redefining the case as a commercial secrets leak instead of a State secrets leak has greatly tuned down the sensitivity of the issue," Chen told China Daily.
The Australian government and the Rio Tinto Group yesterday insisted their employees were innocent.
The accusations of business crimes indicate that the case has moved from the State secrets area, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was quoted as saying by Reuters.
He also said "the range of possible penalties under these articles is less severe than for State secrets."
Zhang Qi contributed to the story