China prepared to deliver a verdict in the case of Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai, after she failed to contest charges she poisoned a British businessman in his hotel room.
The verdict in the case of Gu, who is accused along with an orderly from her home of murdering Neil Heywood, will be announced at a later date, after the trial was adjourned yesterday, Tang Yigan, vice president of the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court, told reporters in the eastern Chinese city where the case is being heard. In a related case, four police officers during a trial today admitted to involvement in covering up Gu’s actions, Tang said.
“The accused Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun did not dispute the facts of the crime and the intentional homicide charge,” Tang said. “During the process of the hearing, Gu Kailai was in good physical condition, and was emotionally stable.” Zhang is the orderly.
The trial is the most public part of a scandal that saw Bo’s ouster as Chongqing party chief in March and triggered the most serious political upheaval since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China’s state-run media have said it will strengthen people’s faith in the legal system, a message aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party before a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
“The fact that we have a defendant like this can be seen as a step forward but just because this happened to them doesn’t mean we have the rule of law,” said Yan Yiming, a Shanghai-based trial lawyer. “The proceedings weren’t terribly transparent. For a trial to be truly open, anyone would have to be able to walk in.”
Tang said that according to Hefei prosecutors, Gu felt that Heywood was a threat to her son Bo Guagua’s personal safety because of a financial dispute and decided to kill him. She arranged for Chongqing government officials and Zhang to invite Heywood to Chongqing from Beijing, Tang said.
On the night of Nov. 13, Gu went to Heywood’s hotel room and “drank alcohol and tea with him,” Tang cited prosecutors as saying. When a drunk Heywood vomited and needed water, Gu “poured the poison into Heywood’s mouth, causing his death,” Tang said. Chinese officials had originally 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 calls to his mobile phone.
By choosing not to dispute the evidence against her, Gu may be trying to avoid a death sentence, said Zhang Ping, a Beijing-based criminal defense lawyer. “Gu was a lawyer herself so this process is not foreign to her,” he said.
The political context of the case and the manner in which court proceedings are conducted in China all point to a predetermined guilty verdict, Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University, said before the trial started. Clarke said he expected Gu would be given a suspended death sentence.
The trial is a climax of the 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.
There were more than 140 people present in the court, including members of Heywood’s family and friends, as well as British embassy officials, Tang said. Prosecutors produced witness testimonies, audio visual materials and also summoned an “expert” to give evidence in court, he said.
‘Dominated by Politics’
Few will be convinced that politics haven’t played a role in the case, said Beijing-based legal analyst Randy Peerenboom.
“The whole thing is already too compromised and dominated by politics to persuade anybody,” said Peerenboom, an associate fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. “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.”
After the hearing concluded, footage was broadcast by state-owned China Central Television showing the courtroom, with three judges seated behind a wooden panel and Gu dressed in a white shirt and black jacket.
Outside, about 30 security personnel stood in front of the court in black raincoats in heavy rain. A dozen cameras were set up behind the security cordon to film the event.
A middle-aged woman 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.
Security personnel were in front of the court again this morning, where the police officers were tried. The officers admitted the “basic facts” of the charges, that they helped Gu cover up her actions by means including hiding physical evidence, the Hefei court’s Tang told a news conference today. The court will deliver a verdict at a later date, Tang said.
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.
Gu is the youngest of five daughters of a People’s Liberation Army general, according to a Chinese-language website affiliated with the Communist Youth League. She rose from a butcher’s assistant during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution to become a lawyer who won a lawsuit in the U.S. and went on to write a book about the experience.
The handling of her trial 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, Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University, said before the trial.
“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.
Tang said prosecutors in Hefei filed the charges on July 26 and that the court informed the defendants and Heywood’s family of their rights. The court also invited defense lawyers to meet and read through the entire case file, “fully protecting Gu and Zhang, and the victim’s family’s litigation rights,” he said.
— With assistance by Daryl Loo, Debra Mao, and Kevin Hamlin