China sentenced a British corporate investigator to two-and-a-half years in prison on Friday for illegally obtaining private records of Chinese citizens and selling the information to clients including drug maker GlaxoSmithKline.
Peter Humphrey and his American wife, Yu Yingzeng, who ran risk consultancy ChinaWhys, were tried in a Shanghai court. Already having spent 13 months in a Shanghai prison, the couple said they were unaware such acts were criminal.
In its verdict, the court said it found Humphrey and Yu guilty and handed Yu a slightly more lenient sentence of two years in jail. Humphrey was fined 200,000 yuan, about $32,500, while Yu was fined 150,000 yuan, about $24,000 dollars.
Shanghai police have said reports prepared by Humphrey and Yu for clients "seriously violated the legitimate rights of citizens." They contained home addresses and information on family members, real estate and vehicles. Clients included manufacturers, law firms and financial institutions.
Such information can make clear who controls a company or reveal family ties that might lead to conflicts of interest in a secretive Chinese business world dominated by behind-the-scenes connections.
But the ability of investigators to reveal such links might alarm political leaders who want to hide wealth amassed by their families, and business figures who profit from ties to the ruling Communist Party.
"Very sad about the court's verdict, but I hope that the authorities will take into account their poor health condition," the couple's 19-year-old son, Harvey, told reporters outside the courthouse.
According to a statement read out by a court official at a press conference, Humphrey will be deported. The court gave no further details about that aspect of the judgment.
"The two defendants illegally collected Chinese citizens' information over a long period of time and on many occasions. They collected a large amount of data and had also used illegal means, including investigative methods," said Tang Liming, vice-president of Shanghai No.1 People's Intermediate Court.
The couple has the right to appeal their sentence within 10 days, the court said, adding that it had confiscated a laptop and hard drive from them.
They were detained last year following work they did for British pharmaceuticals giant GSK, which is at the center of a separate government corruption investigation involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
Their testimony was being closely watched for any comments that could shed light on the GSK corruption probe, but there was no mention of the company during the one-day trial, even though prosecutors brought up investigations by other foreign firms.
The trial has unsettled the foreign business community, which relies on risk consultancies for information on potential partners, existing employees or firms in China, where such data is not easily available.
Prosecutors charged that the couple had illegally obtained and sold more than 250 items of private information, including household registration data, real estate documents and phone records — a charge which could have led to a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Humphrey, a 58-year-old former Reuters journalist, and his wife acknowledged they were operating in a legal "grey area" at times when gathering information, but they had at no point thought they were doing anything unlawful.
"In other countries, we were able to conduct similar checks, including personal information and private transactions, legally through courts," Yu said, according to transcripts published on the court's blog.
"If we had known that it was illegal, my husband and I would have destroyed all traces of this information."
Yu, who with Humphrey made her statements in English, also said she did not know that third-party consultants hired by ChinaWhys, one of them a registered lawyer, had obtained information illegally.
In testimony read out in court, Humphrey said the due diligence services offered by ChinaWhys largely relied on publicly available records and interviews with executives.
Foreign journalists had no access to the trial, but a television in the media room momentarily broadcast a grainy image which showed Humphrey, dressed in a polo t-shirt and jacket, sitting down inside the courtroom appearing weary.
Al Jazeera and wire services