China charges more than a dozen of Australia's Crown Resorts employees with promoting gambling

The logo of Australian casino giant Crown Resorts adorns the hotel and casino complex in Melbourne, Australia, on June 13, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) - Australia's Crown Resorts Ltd said Chinese authorities charged more than a dozen of its employees with promoting gambling, ending an eight-month limbo since the staff were arrested and inching closer to resolving its biggest crisis.

Since Crown disclosed that 18 of its staff were being held in China for unspecified "gambling offences", the company - 48 per cent owned by billionaire James Packer - has torn up its strategy of luring Chinese high rollers to the casino hub of Macau, shifting its focus back home.

But the fate of the marketing staff held in China since October remained unclear until Tuesday (June 13), when Crown said in a short statement that all its staff caught up in the mass arrest had now been charged with "offences related to the promotion of gambling".

It added that Chinese authorities had referred the cases to the Baoshan District Court. That court declined to comment when approached by Reuters.

The court's register of upcoming hearings showed a case of 19 defendants, of which the names loosely matched those of some Crown employees, listed for June 26.

"Everybody is hoping for a light sentence," said a family member of one of the Crown staff, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The person added that lawyers for the Crown staff received notice of the charges last week, and had previously notified the staff they faced prison sentences of up to three years.

Crown did not respond to requests for comment about the exact number of staff who were charged, the specific charges or possible punishment.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it "continues to provide consular assistance to three Australian Crown employees detained in Shanghai".

Crown last month sold its remaining stake in Macau-focused Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd for US$1.16 billion (S$1.60 billion), ending a fraught offshore expansion and freeing up cash for new projects at home.

The company has been retreating from a decade-long foray into Macau, a southern Chinese territory and global gaming hub, since 18 staff including its head of international VIP sales were arrested for "gambling crimes" in China.

David Green at Newpage Consulting, which specialises in gambling regulation, said Crown's Australian business may be hurt by a conviction of its staff in China.

"If there has been a governance failure at Crown which led to employees being put in harm's way, there is a prospect that the licence review may not be the formality it has been in recent times," Green said.

Crown has casinos and hotels in Melbourne and Perth, and a casino and high-end hotel development in Sydney.

Shares of the company rose 0.6 per cent on Tuesday, while the broader share market closed up 1.7 per cent.

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