In China, Brief Murder Trial of Ex-Official’s Wife Offers Few Answers

At the trial of Gu Kailai, the world was given but a brief glimpse of the players in the Bo Xilai scandal.

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Gu Kailai (2nd L), wife of ousted Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai, and Zhang Xiaojun (2nd R), are escorted into the court room for trial at Hefei Intermediate People's Court in this still image taken from video August 9, 2012

The trial of Neil Heywood’s accused killers didn’t take much longer than the murder itself. On Thursday a court in the eastern city of Hefei heard that Gu Kailai, wife of ousted Chinese political leader Bo Xilai, met the British businessman in a room at the Lucky Holiday Hotel in Chongqing, got him so drunk he vomited, then gave him poison when he asked for water. The trial of Gu and alleged accomplice Zhang Xiaojun, an aide who prosecutors say brought the poison to the hotel room last November, began at 8:30 a.m. and ended around 1 p.m. No verdict was announced, but their convictions are expected; the post-trial report from the official Xinhua News Service said “the facts of the two defendants poisoning the victim to death are clear and the evidence is substantial.

Gu and Zhang did not deny the charges against them, court officer Tang Yigan told reporters after the hearing. Their lawyers, who were likely appointed by the court rather than chosen on their own, offered up some mitigating facts in hope of sparing their clients a death sentence. Zhang’s lawyer said his client was merely an accomplice and hoped he would be treated with leniency. Bo’s lawyer argued that Heywood bore some responsibility, an oblique reference to an alleged threat he made to Gu and Bo’s son, Bo Guagua. A report from the Washington Post, which cited a trial observer, offered more detail. The newspaper said prosecutors alleged Heywood sent an email to Bo Guagua warning he would “be destroyed” if he didn’t pay the equivalent of $20 million over a real estate deal that went bad.

(MORE: Murder Trial Puts Spotlight on China’s Political System)

Domestic coverage of the trial has been strictly limited. Newspapers have only carried the official news service’s coverage. The Beijing News, a commercial daily newspaper, ran the Xinhua story on page 5. CCTV, the state-run broadcaster, showed courtroom footage of Zhang and Gu, her face notably fuller than in a 2007 image of her with Bo Xilai at his father’s memorial service. The CCTV and Xinhua coverage didn’t mention Gu’s husband, who was removed from his official positions in March and April and remains in detention. While the financial dispute with Heywood was raised, Gu was not charged with corruption, leading legal experts to suggest that Bo Xilai will also avoid corruption charges that could widen the scandal.

In his post-trial comments, Tang said that Gu’s defense attorney argued she contributed a “greatly meritorious act” in reporting the crimes of others. He didn’t specify whose crimes, however. It could be a reference to her husband, or possibly Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police boss whose February flight to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu thrust the Bo scandal into the open. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed trial observer who said Gu told Wang in advance that she was planning the crime. On Friday four Chongqing police officials will go on trial in Hefei for attempting to cover up Heywood’s murder, Xinhua reported. That group didn’t include Wang, although the South China Morning Post said he could go on trial next week in Chengdu.

(MORE: How Bo Xilai’s Fall Will Affect China’s Leadership Transition)

The trial Thursday offered the first public developments in the Bo Xilai scandal since he told a press conference in March that he wasn’t under investigation. He was subsequently dismissed and detained, prompting months of intrigue and speculation. Foreign reporters were barred from Thursday’s hearing, and the gap between the official summary of the trial and the details revealed later by anonymous observers indicate just how little room for sunshine the authorities are willing to allow. The outside world was given a brief glimpse at some of the players in the Bo Xilai scandal. And now they will disappear for a long time, and possibly forever.

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