Heywood Murder Trial Ends Without Verdict (Updated)

Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai and family aide Zhang Xiaojun stood trial for the murder of Neil Heywood on Thursday. The proceedings lasted only seven hours, and no verdict or sentence has yet been announced. From John Ruwitch at Reuters:

“The trial finished this afternoon and the court adjourned,” official Tang Yigan told reporters. “The trial committee will announce the verdict after discussion. The date of the verdict will be announced.

“The accused (Gu) Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun did not raise objections to the facts and the charges of intentional homicide.”

[…] Gu and her co-accused were charged with poisoning Briton Neil Heywood, a family friend, last year. The official said the court was told Zhang, the family aide, had put poison in a drink of water that Gu then gave to Heywood who was drunk at the time.

Recent reports suggested that Gu had been treated for depression, and her lawyers told the court that her “ability to control her own behavior was weaker than a normal person“. Other possibly mitigating factors are Gu’s professed belief that Heywood posed a danger to her son, Bo Guagua, and her reported cooperation in providing details of unspecified others’ crimes. According to Xinhua, four police officers will also be tried on Friday for shielding Gu from investigation.

The proceedings were tightly controlled, reflecting the case’s sensitivity. Streets near the courthouse in Hefei—a thousand kilometres from the scene of Heywood’s death in Chongqing—were cordoned off, while the South China Morning Post reported that police visited nearby hotels to check guests’ identities. CNN’s Steven Jiang unsuccessfully sought permission to attend the hearing, and was later involved in a scuffle with police while filming interviews on the street. At least two protesters were also accosted at the courthouse. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

As the hearing began, police dragged away two singing protestors who appeared outside the Hefei intermediate people’s court in Anhui. “I don’t believe it. This case was decided well in advance,” Hu Jiye, a middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, told reporters at the rear of the courthouse.

His friend shouted “Why are you taking me?” and struggled as some of the dozens of plain clothed officers surrounding the building shoved the two men into a car.

[…] Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, is known as the home of Lord Bao, an eleventh century official still seen as an icon of justice and righteous officials in China.

“Today you should go to the Lord Bao temple, steal his statue and put it in front of the court,” wrote one user on Sina’s Weibo microblog. Lawyer Li Fangping wrote: “The security of the Hefei intermediate court is definitely number one in the world but whether it can ensure just proceedings is another question.”

Discussion on Sina Weibo was hampered by keyword and re-post blocking and an unexplained outage, though the latter may have been a happy/unhappy coincidence. From Loretta Chao and Brian Spegele at The Wall Street Journal:

Sina published a message on its official Weibo account suggesting it could be a technical error.

“Currently, parts of our users’ microblogging input box and groups cannot be displayed,” it said. “These problems are under emergency repair, please forgive us for any inconvenience this may have caused!”

[…] The Sina Weibo traffic on Ms. Gu’s trial appeared moderate earlier Thursday, though likely in part because the site blocked the use of the names of people involved, including the accused and her husband. Users still found ways to discuss the case, though—for example, by referring to Ms. Gu as “G.”

Some messages criticized the government, including questioning why the trial is closed to the public. Government officials have said all the available seats in the courtroom had been filled.

The careful control of information appears to be part of a political quarantine isolating Gu from her husband and, by extension, the Party. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker, writing before Thursday’s “show trial without the show”:

[…] In the months since this case broke, the Chinese press has largely ignored the corruption allegations—the reports of overseas account, and bribes, and luxuries—and focussed ever more narrowly on the murder and the wife. Moreover, the South China Morning Post reports that Gu “confessed to murder as well as ‘economic crimes’ ” but was only charged with murder, concluding that the “absence of the economic crime charges could be the clearest sign yet that authorities do not plan to criminally prosecute her husband, the former Chongqing party boss, who is believed to still have support within the party.”

Overlooking those economic crimes amounts to “a serious dereliction of prosecutorial duty,” Pu Zhiqiang, a respected defense lawyer told Perry Link in the New York Review of Books. In an essay on the trial, Link writes that, no matter what sentence she receives, Gu “is still a scapegoat—not for her husband but for the whole Communist Party. By focusing all the blame on her, and ‘bringing her to justice,’ the Party, in its tradition of maintaining decorous exteriors, can extend the fiction that everything is basically fine.” It is far easier, after all, to hold high one bad apple than to upturn the entire cart in search of the worm.

In the final stifling weeks of the Beijing summer, there is no more prevalent and unanswerable debate than this: What will become of Bo Xilai? When I discussed it not long ago with a friend who monitors élite politics closely, he said, “Bo could end up with a long sentence, though it won’t be physically arduous or hard labor. Or they might just find a way to get rid of him politically, by putting him in charge of a think tank or something.”

Also ahead of Thursday’s trial, Jeremy Page dug into the case’s political implications at The Wall Street Journal. Benjamin Kang Lim and Lucy Hornby profiled Gu Kailai at Reuters, while at The Los Angeles Times, Barbara Demick focused on her less prominent co-defendant, and Bo Guagua told CNN that “I have faith that facts will speak for themselves” in the courtroom. See also previous CDT posts on Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai.

Updated at 21:33 PST: A CCTV report (in Chinese) includes footage from the courtroom:

The Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut discussed the trial on ABC Radio Australia, while The Guardian’s Tania Branigan looked at the unanswered questions left in its wake. Some light on these, such as why Gu believed Heywood posed a threat to her son, came from an observer in the courtroom. From Keith Richburg at The Washington Post:

A copy of Heywood’s purported e-mail, written in English, was displayed in court with a Chinese translation, the person attending the trial said. According to the Chinese translation, Heywood supposedly warned Bo Guagua that if he did not pay the money, “you will be destroyed.” There was no verification that Heywood actually wrote the e-mail.

The prosecution said Zhang, the aide, told Gu about the threat, because Gu apparently did not use e-mail, the observer recounted. Prosecutors said Gu then asked Heywood to travel to Chongqing to meet, and, on Nov. 13, Zhang escorted the Briton from his home in Beijing to Chongqing’s Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel, a resort with spacious villas.

Gu had already prepared a poison concoction made from rat exterminator, after having a local party official search various vendors to find one who sold rodent poison containing cyanide, the courtroom attendee said, quoting the prosecution. The vendor who sold the poison was also arrested, the observer said in recounting the testimony.

According to another person present, Bo’s former ally Wang Lijun was also implicated in Heywood’s death. From Gillian Wong at the Associated Press:

The scandal came to light in February, when longtime Bo aide and former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun suddenly fled to the U.S. Consulate in the city of Chengdu. Apparently fearing for his safety if he remained in Chongqing, Wang told American diplomats about his suspicions that Heywood had been murdered and that Bo’s family was involved.

However, in a surprising twist, a man who attended the trial said the court heard evidence that Gu had reported her plans to Wang before she committed the crime, as well as after the deed was done. “Wang Lijun knew all about it, and even participated in planning it,” said the man, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the secrecy surrounding the case and fear of government retaliation.

The South China Morning Post’s Choi Chi-yuk reports that Wang is to face trial next week, though no part in Heywood’s killing was mentioned:

A Chengdu-based source said Wang will be charged with treason, which carries the death penalty. But the source said a lenient sentence would be handed down because Wang earned “merits” during the investigation. Another source, close to the Chongqing government, confirmed that Wang’s trial would open in Chengdu in a few days.

[…] “The trials and everything related to Bo is going on according to the script written by the authorities,” said political analyst Johnny Lau Yui-siu. “The authorities want to first handle Gu and then other related cases, well before the start of the party congress, avoiding any impact on the leadership transition.”

Evan Osnos commented on the brevity of Gu and Zhang’s trial at The New Yorker:

For those in American politics and business who are tempted to rhapsodize about the efficiency of the Chinese system, the murder trial of Gu Kailai has set a new standard. This complex, multi-layered legal drama—involving multiple defendants, allegations of high-level corruption and large cross-border transfers of money—opened on Thursday and was over by nightfall.

[…] The court added that the accused were “defended by lawyers they had respectively engaged” and mentioned that “more than one hundred forty people attended the hearing, including friends and relatives of Bogu Kailai, Zhang Xiaojun and the victim Neil Heywood, British consular officials, journalists, People’s Congress delegates, People’s Political Consultative Conference members and members of the public.” But those statements did not jibe with evidence that is more accessible. Family and friends of the accused had complained in advance that lawyers were prevented from meeting the defendants before the trial. As for the “open trial,” that did not apply to foreign reporters, evidently.

Madeline Earp of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted the use of some relatively low-tech information control equipment outside the courthouse:

Longtime China watchers may remember security officials brandishing parasols in Tiananmen Square on June 4 in 2009, apparently trying to deflect reporters covering the 20th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on anti-government protesters. While they may have obstructed a few standard shots of tourists in the square, the footage of serious-looking security forces toting the colorful barriers in front of the cameras more than made up for the blocked shots.

[…] Use of the umbrella in this context may be entertaining, but we don’t welcome its return to China’s panoply of censorship apparatus. It hugely undermines the transparency and due process which every defendant–not just the wife of a disgraced leader– deserves. If security officials are willing to flout media freedom at such a public event, what hope is there for open coverage at trials of the lesser-known?

Christina Larson also wrote on the trial’s opacity at The New Republic:

“If this is a show trial, we aren’t getting any of the show,” says Alexander Cook, an assistant professor at University of California, Berkley, who is working on a book about China’s most famous twentieth century show trial, that of the Gang of Four, when the main architects of the Cultural Revolution—including Mao Zedong’s wife as a stand-in for the deceased Great Helmsman—stood trial in spectacular fashion for a full month in 1980. A lengthy indictment was published in newspapers, cataloguing the various “counterrevolutionary crimes.” The live audience inside the courtroom numbered several hundred. Each day, a highlight reel of trial proceedings was aired on the nightly news. “It was saturation coverage,” Cook explains. “But I guess one thing they learned: when you run a show, not everyone is going to be cooperative. There’s a risk of something backfiring.”

[…] Of course, what’s still to be determined is whether China’s high-profile trials can still succeed in serving as a willful distraction or distortion from other political controversies. “It’s always about ‘don’t look here, look over there,’” as China-based author and analyst Paul French told me. And one long-standing trope that has traditionally been deployed to that end in China is the blame-the-woman syndrome: a disturbing pattern in which wives of disgraced emperors or politicians have been depicted as corrupt powers behind the throne, and frequently the reasons for dynastic downfall.

The Economist also suggested that Gu’s prosecution was designed to divert attention away from the Party:

Party leaders have a good motive for containing the case against Mr Bo: they do not want to highlight the wealth amassed by his family. Many of them have rich friends and relatives of their own. This may explain why Ms Gu faces prosecution for murder but not, as yet, for economic crimes. Mr Bo was dismissed from the Politburo in April on suspicion of “serious discipline violations”. So far there has been no campaign to smear him for criminal offences.

Yet Mr Bo does not seem the type to go gently into the night. Xi Jinping, like him the son of a revolutionary hero, is to take the reins of power in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year. He might want to make sure Mr Bo’s political career really is over. Expulsion from the party followed by a criminal sentence would do the trick. For perverting the course of justice, perhaps? That would be another open-and-shut case.

Whatever ultimately happens to Bo, some damage to the Party’s reputation may be unavoidable. CTV’s Janis Mackey Frayer spoke about the case to Zhang Sizhi, Jiang Qing’s defender in the Gang of Four trial.

Do you see any way for [Bo] to survive this politically?

No it is absolutely impossible for him to emerge. Whether or not he is going further downhill depends on the trial result.

[…] What does this case expose about the inner workings of the Party and politics?

First, you can see that some of China’s high-level officials are indeed very corrupted. Second, you can see that there are conflicts at the highest levels. They disagree with each other in a lot of things. Third, the current power group, the core leadership, they don’t have enough resolution to deal with this sort of thing. Why, why did they let Bo Xilai rise for such a long time in Chongqing? So it has something to do with their incorrect judgment.

Of course the image of the Communist Party has been damaged because it is a very high level family with such a big problem. Chinese people will have an opinion on that. Think about it: If Gu Kailai can kill an Englishman, how easy would it be to kill a Chinese?

August 9, 2012 6:11 AM
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Categories: Law, Politics, Society