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China accuses tycoon, 35 others of gang crimes, murder in major crackdown exposing shady ties

In this photo taken Jan. 16, 2011 and made available Thursday, Feb 20, 2014, Liu Han, the former multimillionaire chairman of energy conglomerate Sichuan Hanlong Group with stakes in Australian and U.S. miners, is seen in Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan province. Authorities on Thursday accused the Chinese tycoon and three dozen associates of running one of the country’s biggest mafia gangs in recent years, armed with hand grenades and guns, whose takedown exposed ties between organized crime, police and officials. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

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In this photo taken Jan. 16, 2011 and made available Thursday, Feb 20, 2014, Liu Han, the former multimillionaire chairman of energy conglomerate Sichuan Hanlong Group with stakes in Australian and U.S. miners, is seen in Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan province. Authorities on Thursday accused the Chinese tycoon and three dozen associates of running one of the country’s biggest mafia gangs in recent years, armed with hand grenades and guns, whose takedown exposed ties between organized crime, police and officials. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

BEIJING, China - Authorities accused a Chinese mining tycoon of running a vast mafia that blackmailed, beat and gunned down rivals in daytime attacks, travelled in Rolls Royces and Ferraris and fostered ties to prosecutors and police with drug-fueled parties.

The high-level investigation centring on Liu Han, the former multimillionaire chairman of energy conglomerate Sichuan Hanlong Group with stakes in Australian and U.S. miners, and his brother Liu Wei and 34 associates has exposed ties between organized crime and Chinese officialdom.

The gang bust in southwestern China appears to be part of a sprawling shakeup of Sichuan province that has ensnared senior politicians and influential businessmen in a wide-ranging corruption crackdown launched by President Xi Jinping. Many of the Sichuan cases are believed linked to Zhou Yongkang, a former security czar who until recently was one of the country's most powerful leaders, and is reportedly himself the subject of a graft investigation.

The Liu brothers were charged Thursday with 15 crimes, including murder, assault and illegal detention, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The alleged gang's criminal activities, dating to 1993, helped them amass 40 billion yuan ($6.5 billion) in assets with businesses in finance, energy, real estate and mining, Xinhua said.

Investigators have uncovered evidence showing that over the past decade or so, the gang committed crimes that led to the deaths of nine people — five of whom were shot, Xinhua said. Police seized three military-issue hand grenades, a half-dozen submachine guns, 20 pistols and other firearms, 677 bullets and more than 100 knives.

Liu Han was No. 148 in 2012 on Forbes magazine's list of the richest Chinese businesspeople, with a fortune estimated at $855 million. He told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that an investor once shot up his car after suffering losses in a deal. He called himself "Liu Han, the only survivor."

The gang is accused of blackmailing, threatening, beating up and even murdering their business rivals and ordinary people while bribing police and prosecutors to protect their associates and dealings, the report said. They owned a fleet of several hundred cars that included Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris.

They allegedly also fostered strong political ties in Sichuan that helped appoint Liu Han as a delegate of the provincial political advisory body for three consecutive terms, Xinhua said. Liu's brother Liu Wei — who later became an A-list fugitive wanted by police — even served as a torchbearer during the 2008 Olympic torch relay.

Among the accused are three officials in city-level police and prosecutors' offices in Sichuan, Xinhua said, adding that Liu Wei's testimony showed the officials were paid off with money and gifts as well as weekly parties with illicit drugs.

Xinhua said the investigation into the Liu brothers' alleged crime gang was co-ordinated by the Communist Party's central leadership starting in March last year and involved national-level authorities. The Ministry of Public Security ordered police in Beijing, Hubei, Sichuan and elsewhere to co-operate in the bust, Xinhua said.

The case caught the attention of national authorities in 2009 when gang members allegedly carried out a shooting in daylight on a busy street in Guanghan city, killing three people and injuring two bystanders. Authorities pinpointed Liu Wei as the main suspect who ordered the shooting and placed him on a wanted list, the report said. Liu Wei went into hiding, allegedly harboured by his brother.

Though the gang was operating mainly in Sichuan, authorities in neighbouring Hubei province are handling the case, with a court in Xianning City expected to put the suspects on trial. Such a prosecution is unusual and is a sign that the case is being steered from the central level and that there might be concerns the group still wields influence over the judicial system in Sichuan.

Liu Han was detained in March last year, and his disappearance disrupted Hanlong's deals with mining companies in the United States and Australia. Calls to Hanlong rang unanswered while there was no immediate response to an emailed request for comment.

Hanlong owns a 13 per cent stake in General Moly, a miner of molybdenum, a mineral used to harden steel, and 14 per cent of Australia's Sundance Resources.

Hanlong was founded in 1997 and has interests in mining, construction of hydroelectric power, highway and tourism infrastructure and other businesses with a total workforce of more than 12,000 people, according to its website.

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at twitter.com/gillianwong

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