Ex-Chinese construction exec found guilty in U.S. of forced labor charges

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former executive for a Chinese construction company was found guilty on Friday of U.S. charges that he forced Chinese laborers to work in the New York area under a form of debt bondage.

Dan Zhong, 49, was convicted by a jury in Brooklyn federal court after a nearly three-week trial. Zhong had served as the president of U.S. Rilin Corp, a unit of privately held Chinese construction conglomerate China Rilin Construction Group, which is headed by Zhong’s billionaire uncle Wang Wenliang.

Zhong appeared impassive as the jury foreperson read the verdict, which found him guilty on five counts. Robert Cleary, a lawyer for Zhong, declined to comment.

Zhong, who was previously an accredited Chinese diplomat, was arrested in November 2016 and has been jailed since then.

Prosecutors said that he played a leading role in a scheme in which Rilin offered workers in China jobs in the United States, but required them to pledge large sums of cash and even their family’s homes as security, which they would lose if they were found to violate their contracts.

Once in the United States, prosecutors said, workers were told where they could live and kept away from New York’s Chinese communities where they might speak to others. Their passports were kept in a safe Zhong controlled, and workers who tried to escape were violently recaptured, prosecutors said.

Although the workers came to the United States on visas that allowed them to work only on Chinese diplomatic facilities, they were also forced to work on private properties including Zhong’s own New Jersey home, according to prosecutors.

Cleary told jurors at the beginning of the trial the workers came voluntarily to the United States, where they could make up to five times as much money as they could in China, and that Zhong was never involved in violence.

Zhong was one of several Chinese nationals caught up in interconnected probes by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Others include Macau billionaire developer Ng Lap Seng, who was sentenced to four years in prison last year for bribing United Nations officials.

One of the properties where prosecutors said Rilin employees were forced to work was a $10 million Long Island mansion owned by Qin Fei, an associate of Ng. Investigators once questioned Ng about whether Qin had ties to Chinese intelligence, according to court records.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas