China’s Rule of Law Scrutinized as Gu’s Murder Trial Begins

China’s Rule of Law Scrutinized as Bo’s Wife Begins Murder Trial
Guards stand in the rain as a crowd gather outside the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court, where Gu Kailai's trial is being held, in Hefei, Anhui Province, China. Photographer: Daryl Loo/Bloomberg

China’s trial of the wife of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai for murder is shining a light on flaws in the legal system, with state media saying the case is both irrefutable and proof that rule of law is enhancing fairness.

Gu Kailai is accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in the southwestern city of Chongqing once ruled by her husband. Her trial, to be attended by two British diplomatic representatives, is being held 1,059 kilometers (658 miles) away in the eastern city of Hefei, where the aftermath of Typhoon Haikui today lashed the city with rain and wind. Police blocked access roads with plastic cones and kept media behind a cordon about 50 meters from the court.

The state-run Global Times says the trial will strengthen the Chinese people’s confidence in the legal system, showing that nobody is above the law regardless of their status or power. While that message is aimed at bolstering trust in the ruling Communist Party ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year, few will be convinced that politics haven’t played a role, said Beijing-based legal analyst Randy Peerenboom.

“The whole thing is already too compromised and dominated by politics to persuade anybody,” said Peerenboom, who has written books about China and the rule of law. “I don’t think there are many people who think this is going to be handled fully in accordance with all of the legal stipulations in criminal procedure without political intervention.”

Death Sentence

The political context of the case and the manner in which court proceedings are conducted in China all point to a predetermined guilty verdict, say Peerenboom, an associate fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, and Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University.

“We shouldn’t be expecting any Perry Mason-like surprises at the trial,” said Clarke, referring to the fictional defense attorney created by author Erle Stanley Gardner. “The system isn’t designed for the discovery of truth at the trial stage. Any chance she had of showing her innocence should have happened before the trial.” Clarke said he expected Gu would be given a suspended death sentence.

The spokesman’s office of the Supreme People’s Court didn’t respond to a voicemail and a faxed request for comment. The Hefei Intermediate People’s Court didn’t reply to a request sent by e-mail.

Court Security

The trial is the culmination of a drama that began in February when the former police chief of Chongqing fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu with evidence implicating Gu in Heywood’s murder, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. The diplomatic furor sparked by the incident presaged Bo’s ouster as Chongqing party chief in March and China’s biggest political scandal in decades.

Outside the court a middle-aged lady with short gray hair and wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt was grabbed by security personnel and driven away in an unmarked car after she shouted, “I’m a normal Anhui, Hefei resident. I want to see fairness and justice.”

Another woman who said she came to support Gu was turned back after trying to enter the court.

About 30 security personnel stood in front of the court in black raincoats amid heavy rain and wind. A dozen cameras were set up behind the security cordon to film the event.

Gang of Four

For the wife of a Politburo member to be tried for murdering a foreigner is unparalleled in Chinese history, said Minxin Pei, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. Only the prosecution of Jiang Qing, Gang of Four leader and the last wife of former leader Mao Zedong, has any similarities, he said.

The trial is likely to be swift. Gu’s hearing won’t last more than two days and could be wrapped up in half a day, said Lv Guoyu, a Beijing-based lawyer who represented Gome Electrical Appliances Holding Ltd. founder Huang Guangyu in his appeal against his insider trading conviction in 2010.

“Murder is a very simple crime under Chinese law,” said Lv. “There’s not a lot of evidence to be presented in murder cases. It’s just the facts of the death, the defendant’s statement, witness statements, the autopsy report.”

Gu, 53, once a well-known lawyer, is accused along with family employee Zhang Xiaojun of poisoning Heywood because of a conflict over “economic interests,” and because she was worried that Heywood was a threat to the “personal security” of her son, Bo Guagua, Xinhua reported July 26.

Son’s Statement

Bo Guagua yesterday said he had submitted a witness statement in his mother’s case, CNN reported, citing an emailed comment. He said he had written a statement because he had been cited as a motivating factor for the crimes of which his mother is accused, CNN said.

Xinhua said prosecutors interrogated Gu and Zhang, and “heard the opinions of the defense team.” China had initially told U.K. authorities that Heywood died of alcohol poisoning.

Jiang Min, a Hefei-based lawyer who the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper said was assigned by the court to represent Gu, didn’t answer two calls to his cell phone. A woman at Beijing Zong Heng Law Firm, who only gave her name as Peng when reached by phone, said Shen Zhigeng, whom Agence France-Presse said was hired by Gu’s family to represent her, wasn’t accepting any media inquiries about the case.

Murder Focus

The Chinese leadership wants Gu’s trial to focus on the alleged murder and not on corruption, Robert L. Kuhn, author of the book “How China’s Leaders Think,” said on Bloomberg Television.

“The significant issue from the party’s point of view is to contain any criticism of corruption,” he said. “Corruption leads to a great deal of further inquiry and further questions whereas murder speaks for itself and can be contained.”

Gu’s sisters controlled a web of businesses from Beijing to Hong Kong to the Caribbean worth at least $126 million, regulatory and corporate filings show.

The handling of the case has triggered criticism from international jurists. There’s no sign the authorities are adhering to laws that give the accused the right to see their lawyers, said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University.

“Gu has been alone with her accusers for months,” said Cohen. The case has shown “how limited the meaning of the rule of law is in China,” he said.

Clarke said the choice of Hefei as the location for the trial “has no basis in China’s Criminal Procedure Law, which generally requires” that a case be heard either in the place where the crime was committed or where the defendant lives.

‘Neutral Ground’

“I think the central government picked Anhui because the leaders consider us dependable,” said Chu Xian, 26, who works as a traffic planner. “And Hefei is considered neutral ground for the case,” said Chu, who was sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop drinking a green tea latte with his girlfriend yesterday evening.

“We talk about it over meals among friends, but I don’t think about it too much,” Chu said of the case. “It doesn’t affect the lives of us common folk.”

China’s judiciary isn’t independent from the ruling party, with party officials and government bureaucrats sitting on political-legal committees supervising the work of the police, prosecutors and the courts.

The country’s 1979 criminal law was overhauled for the second time in March to include new provisions for the protection of human rights as a principle of law. Other amendments include excluding the use of confessions obtained by torture or violence, and removing restrictions on defense lawyers’ access to defendants.

‘Sordid Chapter’

China’s state-run media says Gu’s trial will bolster faith in the country’s judicial system.

“A trial held according to law will strengthen the Chinese people’s confidence in the country’s legal system,” the state-run Global Times newspaper wrote July 27. “We believe the court can live up to the expectations of the public and deliver a fair trial.”

China’s leaders have also tried to ring-fence the scandal, presenting it as the solitary case of an errant senior official.

“The party just cannot wait to get this case behind it,” said Pei. “It’s a very sordid chapter in its history.”

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