Trial of Chinese ex-official's wife ends


IN THE END, China’s trial of the century took just seven hours, after Gu Kailai, the wife of purged Communist leader Bo Xilai, did not contest charges that she murdered British businessman Neil Heywood.

Analysts believe the trial is aimed at removing Mr Bo from the equation while keeping his powerful factions within the Communist Party onside ahead of a leadership transition in the autumn.

There are also fears he could implicate other party leaders.

A formal verdict will be delivered at a later date, but Ms Gu, an ex-lawyer, now looks unlikely to face the death penalty after admitting she poisoned Mr Heywood, who is alleged to have had secret financial dealings with the couple.

As she entered the Hefei intermediate Court, Gu Kailai was wearing a black suit and a white shirt, footage on the state broadcaster CCTV shows, and she seemed to have put on weight since her detention earlier this year.

The sight of the three judges sitting beneath a large Communist Party emblem left no doubt about the bigger issue at stake in this trial. The case avoided any reference to economic crimes that could have cast the Communist Party leadership in a poor light.

Mr Bo, the ruthless and ambitious ex-Chongqing party head, might now avoid criminal charges and instead could face internal party disciplinary censure.

After Mr Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in Chongqing in November, his death was deemed accidental and his body quickly cremated.

However, speculation that it might have been murder picked up speed in February when Chongqing police chief and Mr Bo’s right hand man, Wang Lijun, turned up at the US consulate 270km away in Chengdu, apparently offering officials evidence about the death of Mr Heywood.

“The trial went according to script. It was expected to be fast but the speed was a little bit surprising. There was an agreement, she was ready to plead guilty. The authorities do not want too many details revealed,” said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s City University.

“Because there was an agreement beforehand, obviously there will be no death penalty. The maximum will be a death penalty suspended for two years, or a long sentence, and there is always the option of medical parole at a later date,” said Mr Cheng.

It’s the biggest trial in China since the conviction of the “Gang of Four” more than 30 years ago for crimes during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. And there are parallels between the treatment of Ms Gu and the manner in which former leader Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing was scapegoated for the horrors unleashed on the populace by her husband during that period of ideological frenzy.

Also charged with accessory in the intentional homicide is a family employee, Zhang Xiaojun.

The Xinhua news agency quoted the prosecutor’s statement saying how, on November 13th of last year, Bogu Kailai, using her formal title, met Mr Heywood in his hotel room for a drink, along with Mr Zhang.

“After Heywood was drunk, vomited and asked for water, she put the poison she had prepared beforehand, and which Zhang had brought along to the hotel room, into Heywood’s mouth, which led to Heywood’s death,” it said.

This story appears inconsistent with testimony from his friends that he was a light drinker, and begs the question how she knew he would vomit and ask for water.

However, this was no regular court appearance. The prosecutors said the facts of the two defendants poisoning the victim to death were “clear and the evidence is substantial”. The deal also means Chinese authorities can be seen to be working within the rule of law. It shows Chinese people that the wife of an important person can go to court just like anybody else, while it also responds to requests by Britain and the international community for justice for Mr Heywood.

There will be another case today, accusing four Chinese policemen of trying to protect Ms Gu from investigation, which could reflect badly on Mr Bo.

His supporters see the charges as an attack on Mr Bo’s populist brand of politics, which set him on a collision course with the leadership of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao.