Thursday, August 09, 2012

Gu Kailai trial ends, but suspicion remains

The trial of Gu Kailai for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood has ended in the Chinese city of Hefei, after only one day [BBC / BBC / Sky News].

High security

High security surrounded Hefei's Criminal Courtroom No.1 with foreign journalists being kept well back. Information coming from the court was minimal with a court official telling reporters that Gu had not contested the charge that she killed Neil Heywood by poisoning in November 2011. As regards the actual verdict and sentencing, details would be announced later, the official said.

Gu Kailai, the wife of former Chinese lawmaker Bo Xilai, who lost his post in the scandal surrounding Neil Heywood's death, is accused of murdering the British businessman with help from her aide, Zhang Xiaojun.

The official, Tang Yigan said Gu was "in good shape and mentally stable," throughout the trial. Gu Kailai was detained in mid-April but the date for a trial was only announced last week after months of speculation surrounding her involvement [BBC / CNNTelegraph / Guardian].

Lack of openness 

The announcement of the trial triggered speculation as to how open the proceedings would be, and how much if any information would be revealed about the murky details of the case.

Britain said that two diplomats would be allowed to watch the trial, an unprecedented move in itself. "We can confirm that British diplomats will attend the trial," the Foreign Office said last week. "The details of the on-going investigation are a matter for the Chinese authorities. However, we are glad to see that the Chinese authorities are continuing with the investigation into the death of Neil Heywood. We are dedicated to seeking justice for him and his family and we will be following developments closely." [Sky / FT]

But allowing foreign diplomats to sit on on the much awaited criminal trial did not hail any great move to openness. CNN's Steven Jiang attempted to gain access to the Gu Kailai trial but found himself unable to obtain any information let alone permission to attend the trial itself.

Verdict already decided

According to many observers the outcome of the trial had already been determined and Thursday's proceedings were a mere formality. "She has already been found guilty," Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said. "They can't possibly allow and schedule a trial without already agreeing at the top level of the political leadership what she is accused of, what she will be found guilty of and what sentence she will be given."

"Gu Kailai, for all the money she may or may not have, is unlikely to be able to have a totally independent lawyer representing her who would be able to challenge the judge's decision. It works backwards. The trial will have to deliver the verdict that has already been decided."

Echoing Tsang's thoughts on the matter Prof Willy Lam, a China expert from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said "The judgment has already been passed. I think that, according to Chinese tradition, it is almost impossible for the defence to try and overturn this."

While many people, even outside of China might feel that Gu Kailai was likely responsible for Neil Heywood's death, the nature of the way she is being judged has raised concerns.

Her two appointed lawyers were not allowed access to their client until the day and a family appointed lawyer was refused permission to represent Gu [Reuters / Guardian].

Restricted media coverage

Any discussion about the trial has also been severely restricted. China's most popular version of Twitter, Sina Weibo, has actively being censoring search results and posts mentioning the wife of Bo Xilai. State media has also been heavily controlled and only government approved articles have surfaced.

But such censorship and control is perhaps to be expected in China, especially as the country prepares a major leadership transition.

This was a trial that said much about China. "The decision to hold the trial in Anhui province, rather than in Chongqing, where Mr Bo ruled and Mr Heywood died, betray apprehension that the Bo family's influence may linger," The Independent observed. "A small, redeeming feature is that two British diplomats have been permitted to attend; given that Mr Heywood was a British citizen and that his death was initially described as accidental, however, this is but a modest observance of diplomatic protocol. Nothing suggests a fair trial."

Trial reflects a corrupt society

"Forecasts of the outcome have veered from the death penalty to a relatively short prison term in return for a guilty plea, mitigated by self-defence. The suspicion must be, however, that the verdict will reflect more the political balance of power than actual evidence. "

While the West often lauds China's economic prowess, its pace of industrialisation and its rising wealth even if recognising the costs such as ultra-cheap urban labour, environmental catastrophes and rural dispossession. What is more than often ignored is the "corruption that lies behind much of China's rapid development," The Independent said.

Such murkiness behind the scenes in China is also allured to by Perry Link in a recent article for New York Review who talks of a "mafia-like world" of Chinese politics.

Gu's son keeps faith

Breaking the rather deafening silence coming from either the government or the Bo Xilai camp was a brief statement from Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai's son Bo Guagua.

"As I was cited as a motivating factor for the crimes accused of my mother, I have already submitted my witness statement," Bo said in an email sent to CNN. "I hope that my mother will have the opportunity to review them." He also expressed some faith, even if a little naive, in China's judicial system. "I have faith that facts will speak for themselves." [BBC / Daily Mail]

Future ramifications

The trial of Gu Kailai would be a sensational case at any time. But coming months ahead of a party congress that will chart China's future leadership, the ramifications could echo far beyond the verdict of the trial, expected to begin this week.

"This is definitely more than a criminal trial," says Wenran Jiang, who went to Peking University with Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, the one-time Communist Party chief of Chongqing and member of the policy-making party politburo from which he was dismissed in April 2012 following allegations Gu was behind the murder of British businessman, Neil Heywood [CNN].

Opened wounds

The trial has opened up many wounds within the Chinese Communist Party. It has highlighted the corruption that still exists, exemplified by the fact that four police officers are also to stand trial after helping to cover up the murder of Neil Heywood.

The incident has shone an unwelcome spotlight on China's justice system and the lack of transparency, both in the press and on the Internet. It has also revealed the problems of a growing number of millionaires who are increasingly sending money abroad.

Laundered millions

There have been suggestions that Gu Kailai had transferred at least $1 billion abroad as well as investing enormous sums in expensive property [FT].

Her case is not unique. Reports last year revealed that corrupt officials and their family members have transferred billions of dollars into foreign accounts. A report by China's central bank found that thousands of Chinese government officials have smuggled billions out of the country and fled, mainly to the US, highlighting "the corruption within a corrupt system".

The details emerged when China's central bank inadvertently published an internal document highlighting the problem on its website. Corrupt officials had, according to the bank, transferred more than 800 billion RMB overseas WSJ / Time / World Crunch]. 

Suspicious public perception

The ousted Bo Xilai built his reputation on cleaning up corruption, though he may have been as much guilty of feathering his own nest and protecting his own position of power. His purge from power was as much to do with sweeping away scandal as it was to do with Bo's ambitions in the party. And with China's opaque political system it remains unclear whether China's new administration will seek to cleanse the system further, or if corruption will continue.

Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University School of Law and an expert in Chinese law, told CNN that many people in China would likely remain "very suspicious" of the general cover-up of the Bo Xilai saga and the Gu Kailai trial in particular. With a large number of people "reliant on rumours rather than fact", the communist party "should come clean with the people and be as open as possible," Cohen said.

No comments: