x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

I was framed, says Bo Xilai

China unusually open about proceedings but observers say verdict is a forgone conclusion and sentencing deal may have been struck.

Bo Xilai, centre, stands trial at the court in eastern China's Shandong province on Thursday.
Bo Xilai, centre, stands trial at the court in eastern China's Shandong province on Thursday.

JINAN, CHINA // Bo Xilai put up a feisty defence yesterday as he faced China's most political trial in decades, claiming he had been framed in one of the bribery charges against him and had admitted to it against his will during interrogation.

The 64-year-old former Communist Party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing has been charged with illegally taking almost 27 million yuan (Dh16.2m), corruption and abuse of power, and will almost certainly be found guilty.

Mr Bo's denial of one of the charges and his strong language as he made his first public appearance since his downfall early last year were unexpected.

But at least one observer said he could have struck a deal with the authorities to show he was getting a fair trial in exchange for a pre-arranged sentence.

"He is clearly going along with this trial," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The outcome has been already decided. There's probably an agreement already between Bo and the party as to what the outcome will be."

President Xi Jinping is seeking support from the Communist Party to push reforms that will rebalance the economy, and will want Mr Bo's trial to be finished quickly, with a minimum of fuss.

Mr Bo's downfall has pitted supporters of his Maoist-themed egalitarian social programmes against the capitalist-leaning economic road taken by the leadership in Beijing, exposing divisions in the ruling party and Chinese society.

He was one of China's rising political stars, and his trial in the eastern city of Jinan marks the culmination of the country's biggest political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In a photograph released by the court, a clean-shaven Mr Bo, whose hair looked like it was still dyed black, looked sombre as he stood in the dock without handcuffs. He was dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and stood with his hands crossed in front of him, flanked by two policemen.

Foreign media were not allowed to attend the trial and Mr Bo's remarks were carried on the court's official microblog, so were likely to have been highly edited.

Still, the transcripts provided by the court marked a level of openness that was unprecedented for a trial in China.

"Regarding the matter of Tang Xiaolin giving me money three times, I once admitted it against my will during the Central Discipline Inspection Commission's investigation against me," Mr Bo said, referring to the party's top anti-graft body. "[I'm] willing to bear the legal responsibilities but at that time I did not know the circumstances of these matters: my mind was a blank."

Mr Bo was charged with receiving about 21.8m yuan in bribes from Xu Ming, a plastics-to-property entrepreneur who is a close friend and is also in custody, and Mr Tang, the general manager of Hong Kong-based export company Dalian International Development, the court said.

Mr Bo called Mr Tang "a mad dog" who wanted to "frame me out of consideration for his own interests".

"This evidence has little to do with my criminality," Mr Bo said. "I was just hoodwinked. I thought it was all official business."

Mr Bo received the bribes through his wife, Gu Kailai, and his son, Bo Guagua, the court said, citing the indictment.It was the first time authorities had named the younger Bo in the case against his father. Guagua is now in the United States, pursuing a law degree at Columbia University.

Mr Tang's whereabouts are unknown. A secretary at Dalian International's office in Hong Kong said she had not seen Mr Tang since May or June last year. There was also no one at his last known residential address in Hong Kong.

Written evidence from Gu was provided to the court in which she said she had seen a large amount of cash in safes at two of their residences, money that matched the amount alleged given to Mr Bo by Mr Tang.

Mr Bo said that testimony was "laughable".

His trial will last for two days and the verdict is likely to be announced early next month, according to the state broadcaster CCTV.

Mr Bo is also accused of embezzling 5m yuan from a government project in the northeastern city of Dalian, where he served as mayor, the court said.

The charge of abuse of power against him relates to a murder case involving Gu, the court said.

Mr Bo was a rising star in China's leadership circles when his career was derailed last year by the scandal involving his wife, who was convicted over her role in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, a business partner and family friend, in November 2011.

Mr Bo's former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, was jailed for trying to cover up the case. Mr Bo was furious with Wang when he was told his wife was a murder suspect, and sacked him despite not having the party authority to do so, sources with knowledge of the case have said. Neither did he report the matter to his bosses in Beijing, all of which led to the abuse of power charge.

Bo could face the death sentence for his charges, though a suspended death sentence is more likely, which would effectively mean life imprisonment or a 20-year term.

His guilt is almost a foregone conclusion, given that the prosecutors and courts fall under Communist Party control.