x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Gu Kailai murder trial verdict 'not in doubt'

Wife of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilal today faces a murder charge over the cyanide poisoning death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, pictured in 2007. Gu faces a murder charge over the poisoning death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, pictured in 2007. Gu faces a murder charge over the poisoning death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

BEIJING // When Gu Kailai, wife of the fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai, walks into court today to face a murder charge, she is unlikely to harbour hopes of an acquittal.

As far back as April, when the state media said she was "highly suspected" of involvement in the death in November of the British businessman Neil Heywood, she was as good as convicted.

More recently, the state Xinhua news agency said "the evidence is irrefutable and substantial", and reports have indicated that Ms Gu herself has reportedly confessed to helping to kill Heywood.

Yet despite countless hundreds having been put to death in China for lesser crimes, the 53-year-old will probably not pay with her life for her apparent involvement in the cyanide poisoning of Heywood.

With state media saying she believed Heywood, 41, was threatening the security of her son, Bo Guagua, a lengthy jail term seems more likely. That outcome would also help to contain the fallout from a case that has been highly embarrassing to China's rulers.

Xinhua has also reported that Ms Gu and Heywood fell out over "economic interests".

"Certainly she will escape the death penalty," said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.

"She will [accept] the blame and leave her husband out."

Mr Bo has not been accused of involvement in Heywood's death, but reports have indicated he may have tried to stifle a police investigation into the killing.

In a country run through "rule by law" rather than "rule of law", with the courts subservient to the Communist Party's will, the outcome of Ms Gu's case has been seen as more the result of back-room political negotiation than objective courtroom analysis of evidence.

The predictions are that the trial, in Hefei in eastern China, will be brief, perhaps a day long. Foreign media have been barred from attending, although two British consular officials will be allowed to observe.

In the dock alongside Ms Gu will be a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, 33, who is likely to argue that he was not the primary motivator behind the killing of Heywood, who the authorities initially claimed had died of alcohol poisoning.

Heywood attended Harrow, the elite British private school that Bo Guagua later went to, and had ties with the family that dated from when Mr Bo, now 62, was based in the seaside town of Dalian during the 1990s.

The downfall of Mr Bo and his wife, both the children of Communist revolutionaries, created China's biggest political crisis in decades and also scuppered the ambitions of a man who had launched a brazen public bid for promotion.

As party leader of Chongqing municipality in the south-west, Mr Bo's daring agenda included a controversial crackdown on organised crime and a programme of Communist Party "red songs" nostalgia that offered echoes of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

When Wang Lijun, his police chief, fled in February to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu, and apparently revealed Ms Gu's involvement in Heywood's death and her husband's efforts to cover up the killing, Mr Bo's political opponents from the party's liberal wing had an excuse to go after him.

Mr Bo had been set for promotion to the all-powerful politburo standing committee as part of a leadership transition later this year.

In March, he was sacked from Chongqing and, a month later, removed from the politburo amid allegations of corruption, while his wife was handed over to the judicial authorities for prosecution.

While Ms Gu contemplates a lengthy stretch behind bars, some believe Mr Bo himself will escape criminal charges and will instead be dealt with solely by the party disciplinary apparatus.

"He will not go to court, because his going to court would expose corruption activities," said Mr Cheng.