Official: Wife of Chinese politician poisoned Brit
HEFEI, China, Aug 9: The wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai invited a British businessman to a hotel room, where she got him drunk on wine and fed him poison, according to the evidence presented Thursday in one of China´s highest-profile murder trials in years.
The trial of Gu Kailai and a household aide, who are accused of murdering Bo family associate Neil Heywood, lasted all of four hours.
International media were barred from the courtroom, so details of the case against Gu were provided by Tang Yigan, deputy director of the Hefei Intermediate People´s Court in eastern China.
He did not say when a verdict was expected, but said Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, did not contest the murder charges.
The secretive and tightly orchestrated court proceeding marks a step toward resolving the messiest scandal the leadership has faced in two decades. Observers say the Communist Party leadership´s main objective in the case is to keep the focus tightly on the murder case and not on larger allegations of corruption that could further taint the Chinese regime.
Tang said prosecutors told the court that Gu sent Zhang to meet and accompany Heywood from Beijing to the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing. On the night of Nov. 13, Gu went to Heywood´s hotel and drank wine and tea with him.
"When Heywood was drunk and vomited and wanted to drink water, she then took pre-prepared poison that she had asked Zhang Xiaojun to carry and poured it into Heywood´s mouth, killing him," Tang said.
Tang repeated what the official Xinhua News Agency reported several weeks ago when announcing the indictment: that Gu and Heywood had a dispute over economic interests, and that Gu thought that Heywood was a threat to her son´s safety and decided to have him killed. Tang did not specify what sort of threat Heywood was.
Tang said the prosecutors believed the facts of the crime were clear and the evidence sufficient, and that "Gu Kailai is the main culprit and Zhang is the accomplice."
Neither defendant nor their lawyers have ever publicly given their side of the story and neither has been seen for months.
Two British diplomats were allowed into the court under an agreement with China because of Heywood´s nationality. The British Embassy in Beijing said no statement would be released as the trial was still ongoing.
While the short length of just several hours for a murder trial may surprise legal experts in other countries, it is quite common in China, where verdicts are even delivered the same day in serious cases involving the death penalty.
"Frankly, in my experience, it´s very unusual for criminal trials (in China) to extend beyond a day," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong. "It´s a pretty streamlined affair."
Rosenzweig said trials are short in part because witness testimony is usually written, instead of delivered in person.
"It´s very rare to see what you see in other countries, where a trial starts on one day and extents through many, many days," he said. "The process is very structured. A Chinese criminal trial is not a free-flowing process."
In Gu´s trial, Tang said material evidence, written evidence, witness statements and other materials were presented.
Tang said Gu´s lawyer told the court that Heywood bore some responsibility for the cause of the crime, although he did not say why. The lawyer also said Gu had less than normal control of her actions when the crime was committed and that she had informed on the crimes of others. Tang did not say what crimes.
Tang said Zhang´s lawyer asked for leniency because he was only an accomplice. He said that during the hearing, Gu seemed to be in good health with a stable mood.
Tang said the court would seriously study the evidence and arguments of both sides and make a judgment at a date to be announced in the future.
Security was tight around the courthouse, with police lines in front of entrances and dozens of plainclothes security officers in the streets.
Gu and Zhang are likely to be found guilty of intentional homicide, which carries punishment ranging from more than 10 years in jail to a life sentence or the death penalty. In announcing the indictment about two weeks ago, Xinhua made clear the government considers the verdict a foregone conclusion. "The facts of the two defendants´ crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial," it said.
The scandal has drawn attention to political infighting that China prefers to keep secret and comes at a time when the government is preparing for a once-a-decade political transition — at the 18th party congress later this year — that will install a new generation of leaders. Bo was once a contender for a top job.
Before his ouster in the spring, Bo, also the son of a revolutionary veteran, was one of China´s most powerful and charismatic politicians. But his overt maneuvering for a top political job, as well as high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime and promote communist culture — while trampling over civil liberties and reviving memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution in the process — angered some leaders.
The infighting came to light in February with the sudden flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu of longtime Bo aide and former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun. Apparently fearing for his safety if he remained in Chongqing, Bo´s stronghold, Wang told American diplomats about his suspicions that Heywood had been murdered and that Bo´s family was involved.
In April, Bo was stripped of his most powerful posts and Gu was named a suspect in Heywood´s murder. That was followed by a report late last month about her indictment, which indicated that the leadership had closed ranks and reached a general agreement about the case and was ready to move forward with the trial.
Bo is the first Politburo member to be removed from office in five years and the scandal kicked up talk of a political struggle involving Bo supporters intent on derailing succession plans calling for Vice President Xi Jinping to lead the party for the next decade.
Bo is in the hands of the party´s internal discipline and inspection commission, which is expected to issue a statement about his infractions. That would open the way for a court trial with charges possibly including obstructing police work and abuse of power. Thus far, Bo has been accused only of grievous but unspecified rules violations.