Verdict in Heywood Murder Trial Due Monday

The verdict in Gu Kailai’s trial for the murder of Neil Heywood is to be announced on Monday, according to Reuters:

“The verdicts for Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun will be announced at 9 a.m. on Monday,” an official with the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court told Reuters.

[…] Chinese courts usually deliver verdicts and sentences at the same hearing, and Gu and Zhang could receive the death penalty.

But lawyers have said Gu is likely to receive a long prison term, possibly life, because government accounts of the case have stressed she was seeking to protect her son, Bo Guagua, who was until recently a student at Harvard University.

A guilty verdict is widely considered a foregone conclusion. At CNN, George Washington University Law School professor Donald Clarke wrote that despite its spicy ingredients and weighty political implications, the case would offer no more surprises:

[… M]ost China-watchers assume that proceedings in this case have been tightly controlled to ensure that only the officially approved narrative emerges. They assume that the verdict was decided in Beijing before the opening gavel sounded, and that the proceedings were merely a performance for the benefit of the public, a kind of judicial Shakespeare-in-the-park, but without the drama.

That’s the conventional wisdom. And at times like this, it’s the job of the think-outside-the-box expert to explain why the conventional wisdom is wrong. But it’s not. In fact, the trial is as predictable as it is banal. If anything is surprising, it’s the degree to which it utterly fails to upset our assumptions about how Chinese politics and the legal system work.

[…] The real lesson in this case, then, is twofold. First, it offers us no reason to change our understanding of the Chinese legal system as directly subservient to politics when sufficiently powerful politicians choose to get involved. Second, it reflects the cynicism that seems so pervasive in Chinese society. Nobody I know, Chinese or foreign, with the remotest knowledge of the Chinese legal system thinks that anything of importance will be decided as a result of what went on at the Gu trial.

Clarke also offered an extensive collection of “random thoughts” on the trial at his China Law Prof Blog.

When Gu and Zhang were formally charged with Heywood’s murder late last month, a Global Times editorial argued that the trial would present an opportunity to put Chinese rule of law on display. “The more details are revealed,” it said, “the more it will help build public confidence in China’s legal framework.” Xinhua’s lengthy official account of the trial echoed the editorial’s sentiments, repeatedly stressing the universality of rule of law in China:

Zheng Xiaoyan, a deputy to the National People’s Congress who attended the court hearing, said the public intentional homicide trial of Bogu Kailai and Zhang indicates that China is a socialist country governed by law. The dignity and authority of the law brook no violation.

[…] Zheng said everyone is equal before the law, so nobody is entitled to any privilege. The binding force of the law does not have exceptions. Any one who breaks the law must be severely punished.

“This case has drawn great attention from the public,” said Jiang Tao, a local resident from the Yaohai District of Hefei. “I attended the full hearing and felt the solemnness of the court and inviolability of the law.”

“The public trial shows that everyone is equal before the law. I hope that the court will make a fair judgement in accordance with the law,” Jiang Tao said.

Besides Xinhua’s, the most prominent account came from Zhao Xiangcha, who claims to have been present at the trial. It was translated into English by Donald Clarke at China Law Prof Blog:

Because it wasn’t permitted to bring any recording equipment into the courtroom, even a small pencil I had with me was confiscated. I can only rely on memory and inference to sum up the case, and this account includes subjective inferences I’ve made from the details of various pieces of testimony. If there are mistakes, omissions, or additions, don’t blame me.

[…] I feel that the entire courtroom adjudication process was fairly objective and just. There was a slight feeling that things had been rehearsed beforehand. But that didn’t affect the ultimate defining of the case. The facts really were clear and the evidence really was copious. The prosecutor didn’t bully people and the defence lawyers did everything they could. The testimony of the called witnesses (传唤证人的证词)[2] was very just and unbiased. To convict these two is absolutely just.

[…] I was fortunate enough to sit near Shen Zhigeng. Mr. Shen Zhigeng handled the defence in the Xiamen Yuanhua case several years ago, and this time the Bo family originally wanted him to be the defense attorney. But the lawyers had already been appointed by the judicial organs, and Mr. Shen could only attend as an observer. Shortly after the trial began, the lawyer had just begun to speak, and Shen sighed, “This case has been ruined by the lawyer.”

Clarke commented in his “random thoughts” that this account raised its own questions:

Who is Zhao Xiangcha, why was he allowed to attend the trial, and why did he feel it was fine to publish a report of the trial on line? This was a trial so sensitive that attendance was strictly controlled, and by Zhao’s own account even his pencil was confiscated. In 1980, Liu Qing was sentenced to prison for (among other things) distributing a transcript (not alleged to be inaccurate) of Wei Jingsheng’s supposedly public trial. Why was Zhao Xiangcha confident he could do this?

The carefully managed information allowed out of the courtroom has left many observers unconvinced. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos invoked Rashomon, suggesting that “given all [the] various incentives to steer the narrative in one direction or another, it’s best to see this less as a simple story of what happened than as a narrative constructed out of facts, accusations, and political imperatives.” (Beijing-based lawyer Stan Abrams suggested at China Hearsay that Shakespeare might fill in some of the blanks.) Peking University law professor He Weifang posted some sceptical comments on his Sina blog [zh] which were then translated, once more, by Donald Clarke at China Law Prof Blog:

[…] This kind of trial is just a show to cover up the truth. If this kind of case is not tried justly, then lies have to be used to cover up lies, leading to an impossible situation where the story doesn’t hold together and it becomes a satire of justice.

In any case, as far as the bit of the iceberg that was exposed is concerned, we can see who the real mafia in Chongqing are.

At Caixin, founder and editor Hu Shuli similarly argued that the trial revealed little besides the depth of corruption and criminality in Bo’s Chongqing:

At the trial, Bogu tried to emphasize that the motivation behind her crime was to protect her son. But these aren’t exculpatory circumstances, nor is there enough evidence to prove her claim.

If the dispute between Bogu and Heywood was economic in nature, they could have used economic channels or a civil lawsuit to resolve it. The fact that Heywood was willing to meet Bogu by himself and drink tea and liquor with her, indicates that Heywood was not on the verge of murdering her son. The dispute had not reached that level. It is obvious that her argument does not add up. In fact, last November as the case was unfolding, Bogu’s son was in the United States studying at Harvard University.

The facts about the disagreement between Bogu and Heywood are hard to come by, but what is known does not excuse her for her crime. The story spun about a mother sacrificing herself for her own can hardly deceive anyone.

Such doubts are widespread, according to Gillian Wong at the Associated Press:

Legal and political scholars say much of the case has been implausible, leaving major questions unanswered, not least of which is whether the victim posed any real threat to Gu’s son at all. Also, why would a high official’s wife carry out such a murder herself? Where is Bo Xilai, the alleged murderer’s husband and man at the center of the messiest scandal in two decades to rock the Chinese leadership?

[…] “It sounds like a story from a fairy tale. The details of the case have very little credibility,” Peking University law professor He Weifang said of the narrative via state media and official comments.

[… The University of Nottingham's Steve] Tsang said he believes that the party leadership has drawn three political parameters around the case: first, that murder by a senior leader’s wife must be punished, though short of execution; second, that Bo Xilai’s case is unlikely to be resolved before the political transition; and third, that Bo Guagua is not to be implicated out of concern that other party leaders’ overseas children might someday be dragged into political affairs back home.

“If you accept that these are the basic political parameters first and the script was subsequently written to make it work, then you see how the script becomes eventually what it looks like and how it can’t actually really be a consistent narrative,” he said.

Publisher Ho Pin listed twelve “important legal problems that were ignored or omitted during the trial” at The New York Times, while The Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page catalogued doubts from friends of Heywood and people in the courtroom:

Some observers present at the trial also questioned whether an email presented in court, allegedly from Mr. Heywood, had explicitly threatened to “destroy” Bo Guagua if he did not pay the £13 million, as some media accounts of the trial have suggested.

[…] The precise wording of the alleged email, as well as other details of the proceedings, are hard to pin down because none of the observers in court were permitted to record the proceedings or to take any notes.

[…] There is further confusion over when Ms. Gu and Mr. Heywood first met: Xinhua said 2005, while an unofficial account [referring to Zhao's] of the trial circulating online, most details of which were confirmed by the observers who were present in the courtroom, said the year was 2003.

Several of Mr. Heywood’s friends said both dates were inaccurate and that Mr. Heywood got to know the Bo family in the mid-1990s while living in the northeastern city of Dalian, where Mr. Bo was mayor at the time. They also said he helped make arrangements for Bo Guagua’s education in Britain when he moved there around 2000.

The most colourful conflicting account appeared in The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid: Heywood’s former bodyguard described fending off “kung-fu assassins” sent to end his liaison with Gu in Bournemouth in 2001:

Wright told how in 2001 Heywood was nearly murdered at the couple’s penthouse flat in Keystone House, Bournemouth. Henchmen were sent from China after a “spy” posing as a cook exposed the affair, he says.

“Just before Christmas three Chinese guys turned up at their flat which I was guarding with a team 24 hours a day. One of them was 6ft 3in, powerfully-built and seemed to be in charge.

[…] “Mrs Gu and her son were upstairs along with Heywood, watching the fight.

“It was brutal. Those guys wanted blood. Eventually we got the better of them and they didn’t want the British police turning up so they jumped in a car and sped off.“

A more outlandish objection to the trial is that the woman in the dock was not Gu Kailai at all, but a hired double: “a woman around 46 years-old … from Langfang [a city in Hebei Province] named Zhao Tianyun“. But Gu’s changed appearance may simply and perhaps more plausibly be the result of weight gain, possibly as a side effect of anti-depressant medication.

Amid all the possible plot holes, law scholar Flora Sapio argued at The China Story that the trial should be seen not as narrative but as ritual:

[…] I would suggest that the process that has just taken place under the watchful but circumscribed eye of the Chinese and international media could better be dubbed as a ‘ritualistic ceremony’. That is, it was an orchestrated event sanctifying the consensus regarding Neil Heywood’s death, one that has been used to divine the mysterious workings of power. Of course, every ceremony requires a liturgy, and in the case of the BoGu Kailai trial everyone has dutifully fulfilled their liturgical responsibilities.

[…] The law and due process are not really the point. The moment people agreed to treat this process as a trial, a legal event, they shared unwittingly in the consensus view about Neil Heywood’s murder. The arguments will continue, but each and every one – including the view expressed in this essay – will unfold within the safe, predetermined boundaries of an official scripted liturgical ritual.

The trial of Madam BoGu Kailai has been a complete success.