HEFEI, China – The wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai stood trial Thursday for the murder of a British former associate in a tightly orchestrated proceeding that marks a key step toward resolving the messiest scandal the leadership has faced in two decades.
Gu Kailai and a household aide faced charges of murdering Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had close ties to the Bo family, in a trial at the Hefei Intermediate People's Court in eastern China. They were represented by government-appointed lawyers from Anhui province, of which Hefei is the capital city.
An official at the courthouse confirmed the trial had started after a convoy of black cars entered a side entrance into an underground parking lot. Like most Chinese officials, she refused to give her name. A British diplomat was seen entering the court, but did not comment. International media were not allowed into the court.
Observers say the central leadership's main objectives in Gu's trial is to keep the focus tightly on the murder case and not on larger allegations of corruption that could further taint the communist regime. Beijing also will closely orchestrate publicity to try to convince the domestic audience that the trial has been fair and the international community that justice has been served in the slaying of a foreigner.
The morning of the trial began with a steady downpour. Security was tight around the courthouse, with roads around it blocked to car travel. Reporters were asked to present their IDs before being allowed to get close to the building, but police lines were pulled across the main entrance and guarded by officers. Other entrances were similarly guarded. Dozens of plainclothes security officers loitered around the streets. Several special police vans were parked around the building.
Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, 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, the official Xinhua News Agency 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.
It was not known how long the trial would last, but it was expected to be short.
Gu and Zhang are accused of poisoning Heywood in November in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing, where Bo was party chief until his ouster this spring. According to Xinhua, Gu had a falling out with Heywood over money and worried that her son's safety was threatened.
In London, Heywood's mother accused the press of spreading lies about her son. "You've all behaved so appallingly," Ann Heywood said Wednesday outside her home.
British media have suggested Neil Heywood was involved in money laundering, worked for British intelligence or that he was Gu's lover. Ann Heywood claimed to know more about the case than was in the public domain, but she wasn't specific and said the truth would come out eventually.
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 that will install a new generation of leaders. Bo was once a contender for a top job.
Before his ouster in the spring, Bo, also the son of a revolutionary veteran, was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians. But his overt maneuvering for a top political job, as well as high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime and promote communist culture — while trampling over civil liberties and reviving memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution in the process — angered some leaders.
The infighting came to light in February with the sudden flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu of longtime Bo aide and former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun. 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 Heywood's murder. That was followed by a report late last month about her indictment, 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 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.