British corporate investigator Peter Humphrey and his American wife Yu Yingzeng went on trial on Friday at Shanghai No 1 Intermediate Court accused of illegally obtaining data on Chinese citizens.
The couple told the judge they didn’t knowingly violate Chinese laws when they sought personal information about the subjects of their inquiries, which are linked to an investigation about GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
The court proceedings were transmitted on a microblog, which also fleetingly showed Mr Humphrey in a shirt and dark suit inside the courtroom. The couple’s son, Harvey, was also in the courtroom with embassy officials.
The couple founded ChinaWhys, a Shanghai-based risk management firm, which provides investigation services to companies. GlaxoSmithKline – the biggest UK-listed pharmaceutical firm – was one of their clients.
Prosecutors said they illegally obtained more than 200 items of private information, including household registration data, real estate documents and phone records, and then re-sold the data.
GSK is itself under investigation on charges that its employees used hundreds of millions of euro, paid through travel agencies, to bribe local doctors and health officials to sell its products.
During the court proceedings, prosecutors questioned the couple on methods used by ChinaWhys to obtain information.
Asked if the allegations against him were true, Mr Humphrey said: “From the face of things the facts aren’t wrong, but to the allegations, I don’t understand China’s laws, so I am not in the position to discuss.”
His remarks were quoted on the microblog, which also quoted Ms Yu saying: “I never knew that information gotten from a third party is violating the law. Our information is third hand, we didn’t know the original source of the information.”
Mr Humphrey was formerly a Reuters correspondent in Hong Kong. After leaving the news agency 14 years ago he worked as an investigator in different parts of Asia, including time at the US risk consultants Kroll and as head of China investigations at PwC, tracking white collar crime and corporate fraud.
Ms Yingzeng is a California-educated accountant who has served as a financial controller in the United States and Hong Kong, and as a high-level advisory consultant in China.
Mr Humphrey and Ms Yu are the first foreigners to be indicted for an illegal investigation, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
A year ago, Chinese state television broadcast a confession and an apology by the couple. Such public apologies are common by Chinese officials and celebrities accused of wrongdoing, but a confession by a foreigner rarely happens.