Chinese authorities have approached a well-known legal professor and lawyer to defend former security chief Zhou Yongkang, the most senior Communist Party official to face corruption charges in three decades, said people familiar with the matter.
Gu Yongzhong, 59, has had discussions with the justice ministry about representing Zhou, and his appointment may be announced in the coming weeks, according to three people who asked not to be identified as the talks are confidential. Prosecutors announced April 3 that Zhou will be charged with taking bribes, abuse of power and leaking state secrets.
Appointing a lawyer for Zhou would be a further sign that officials are working to potentially bring his case to court within a few months. The choice of Gu -- officials typically pick the defense lawyers in high-profile cases -- would also suggest an effort at least on the surface to provide Zhou with a lawyer capable of mounting a robust defense during the trial, as officials seek to show a greater commitment to the rule of law.
Even so the party, which dictates the outcome of sensitive cases, has left little doubt that Zhou will be found guilty. He was arrested and expelled from the party in December, with leaders saying he “blatantly traded power for money and sex” and his stain “must be washed clean.”
Gu declined to comment when reached by phone. The Ministry of Justice didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment about the case.
He is the vice dean of the Procedural Law Institute at the China University of Politic Science and Law in Beijing, and a deputy director of the Criminal Committee section of the All-China Lawyers Association. Another deputy director of the committee, Li Guifang, represented former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai in 2013. Bo was convicted of graft and abuse of power and sentenced to life behind bars.
“Professor Gu is an impressive expert on Chinese criminal justice who is well-known both inside and outside China,” said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University who specializes in China’s legal system. “Of course, it’s long past the time when a defense lawyer should have been assigned to this case,” he said.
“At this very last minute stage of the party-state punishment process, there is not much that the greatest defense lawyer can do even if the criminal trial part of the process allowed defendants a fair opportunity to make a defense,” Cohen said.
Gu was among the lawyers who defended the former deputy mayor of Shenyang who was executed in 2001 for corruption. Gu’s interests include the “practical and theoretical problems of criminal defense,” according to a biography on the website of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he gave a speech in 2008.
In a 2013 article in the China Daily newspaper, Gu praised authorities for allowing Bo to appoint his own legal counsel during the investigation phase of his case.
“The changes can protect defendants’ rights, since they have effectively enlarged lawyers’ roles in criminal cases,” Gu was quoted as saying about tweaks to the criminal procedure code. “Lawyers are there to protect the rights of the suspects who usually don’t know much about law.”
Zhou hasn’t been heard from since he was arrested in December. No date for his trial has been set.
— With assistance by Keith Zhai