China seeks jailed former tycoon who fled country

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Chinese authorities are looking for a former drinks tycoon who bribed his way out of jail and fled the country after being sentenced to 15 years in prison for embezzling millions of dollars in public funds, state media said on Monday.

Zhang Hai, former president and chief executive of the sports drink maker Jianlibao Group, was found guilty of misappropriating 206 million yuan (S$43 million) in 2007.

But through bribery and the fabrication of documents to prove his good behaviour, Zhang was released in 2011 and promptly went overseas with his girlfriend Huang Lu, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"Related departments are now trying to arrest and extradite Zhang and Huang," Xinhua said, citing a statement from the state prosecutor's office, without saying which country they are suspected of having gone to.

A total of 24 others were being or have been investigated in connection with Zhang's release, including 11 in the judiciary and prison service, a court official and two lawyers, Xinhua added.

Four of them had already been jailed for up to six years, while Zhang's reduced sentence has been revoked, the news agency said.

The Jianlibao Group, based in the southern province of Guangdong, was one of the nation's most prominent sports drink manufacturers and once ran a top-flight soccer club in the boomtown of Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong.

Prosecutors said Zhang used the company's money under his name to cover for loans from several other companies before he moved to Jianlibao.

Zhang was ranked as the 137th richest person in China on the Forbes' 2004 Rich List, though dropped off it after he was detained.

President Xi Jinping has stepped up the battle against deep-rooted graft since assuming power last year, and has begun to target corruption in the business community as well as the government and state-owned industries.

Last week, prosecutors charged Liu Han, the former chairman of Hanlong Mining, which attempted to take over Australia's Sundance Resources Ltd, with crimes including murder, gun-running and fraud.

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