The wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai lured a British businessman to a hotel in the south-western mega-city of Chongqing, where she got him drunk and fed him poison, according to testimony today in one of China’s highest-profile murder trials in years.
The secretive trial of Gu Kailai and a household aide, who are accused of murdering Bo family associate Neil Heywood, ended in less than a day at the Intermediate People’s Court in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei.
The defendants did not contest the murder charges; a guilty verdict is all but assured and could carry a death sentence.
The tightly orchestrated court proceeding marks a step toward resolving the messiest scandal the Communist leadership has faced in two decades.
Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai, was one of China’s most powerful and charismatic politicians until he was ousted in the spring as the scandal surrounding Mr Heywood’s death unfolded. Observers say the party’s main objective is to keep the focus tightly on the murder case and not on larger allegations of corruption that could further taint the regime.
International media were barred from the courtroom, so details of the case against Gu were provided afterward by Tang Yigan, the court’s deputy director.
He said prosecutors told the court that Gu sent her aide, Zhang Xiaojun, to meet and accompany Mr Heywood from Beijing to Chongqing, where Bo was the Communist Party boss.
Gu and Mr Heywood were business associates but had had a dispute over economic interests, according to Tang, whose account matched details from the indictment reported by the official Xinhua News Agency several weeks ago.
Gu thought Mr Heywood was a threat to her son, Bo Guagua, and decided to have him killed, said Tang, who did not specify what sort of threat Mr Heywood posed.
On the night of November 13, Gu went to Mr Heywood’s hotel and drank alcohol 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.
Mr Heywood’s friends and family have said he was never a heavy drinker, and they rejected investigators’ initial conclusion that he drank himself to death. His body was cremated and no autopsy was performed
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.”
Before today, the 53-year-old Gu had not been seen in months and has never publicly offered her side of the story.
Video of the trial shown by state broadcaster CCTV showed a calm-looking Gu being led into court wearing a white button-down shirt and dark suit with a sheaf of papers in one hand. She appeared to be wearing white gloves and was not handcuffed. Zhang wore a white polo shirt and was also not handcuffed.
Chinese officials agreed to let two British diplomats attend court, because of Mr Heywood’s nationality, but the British Embassy in Beijing said it would offer no statement on what happened inside.
The quick trial contrasts those of many other countries, where high-profile murder cases can drag on for weeks, even months. But legal experts say it’s common in China, where even the verdict can be delivered the same day in death penalty cases.
“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 who 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.
He said Gu’s lawyer told the court that Mr Heywood bore some responsibility for the cause of the crime, although he did not say why. The attorney also said Gu had “less than normal” control of her actions at the time of Heywood’s death, according to Tang, and that she had informed on the crimes of others.
Tang did not say what those crimes were or how she might have been impaired.
Zhang’s lawyer asked for leniency, arguing he was only an accomplice, according to Tang, who said the court would study the evidence and the arguments and make a judgment at a date to be announced later.
Tomorrow, four former police officials from Chongqing will also go on trial at the same court, charged with covering up for Gu in Mr Heywood’s murder.
Security was tight around the courthouse, with police lines in front of each entrance and dozens of plainclothes security officers patrolling the streets of Hefei, a gritty industrial city in Anhui Province.
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, where it will install a new generation of leaders.
Bo, the son of a revolutionary veteran, was once a contender for one of those top jobs. But his overt manoeuvring to reach the highest echelons of the Communist Party angered some leaders, as did his bombastic campaigns to bust organised crime and promote communist culture while trampling civil liberties and reviving memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution.
The infighting came to light in February, when long-time Bo aide and former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun suddenly fled to the US 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.
In April, Bo was stripped of his most powerful posts and Gu was named a suspect in Mr Heywood’s murder. That was followed by her indictment late last month, 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, 64, 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.