Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Chinese murder mystery, far from solved

Aug 17, 2012

LAST Thursday's hastily orchestrated murder trial of Gu Kailai, the
wife of ousted Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai, has raised several
questions that cast serious doubt on the case.

It appears that the trial, which lasted less than eight hours, was a
sham and Gu was made a scapegoat in a broader political power struggle
between her husband and top leaders like Premier Wen Jiabao and
President Hu Jintao.

During the trial, Gu confessed to murdering her British business
partner, Mr Neil Heywood; she said she was willing to "accept and calmly
face sentencing" and that she expected the court to give her a "fair
and just verdict".

After combing through leaked court proceedings and official news
reports and interviewing two of the 140 people carefully selected by the
Chinese government to attend the trial, I have identified a dozen
important legal problems that were ignored or omitted during the trial
and that might have resulted in either a dismissal of charges or
acquittal, if the defence had been allowed to address them properly.

  • Gu had been officially given a diagnosis of manic depression and
    moderate schizophrenia by court-appointed medical experts. The
    indictment is largely based on her confession. Without any corroborating
    witness accounts, how do we know her memory was reliable and that her
    mental illness did not affect criminal intent?
  • The motivation for the murder was not clear. The prosecution stated
    that Gu hatched the plot to kill Mr Heywood when she was told that he
    had detained and kidnapped her son in Britain after their business deal

The only evidence shown in court was an early November e-mail from Mr
Heywood, who wrote to Gu's son, Mr Bo Guagua: "You will be destroyed."

But by then, her son was already in the United States, studying at Harvard.

  • The indictment said that Gu had illegally obtained rat poison. Is
    there proof that she actually did? From whom did she get it? And did the
    rat poison contain cyanide?
  • Was there cyanide in Mr Heywood's body? Gu admitted getting him
    drunk and then giving him water laced with cyanide after getting him

However, the initial forensic report, according to the defence,
displayed no primary signs of cyanide poisoning. A CT scan performed on
the victim's body before it was cremated and an initial blood test found
no traces of cyanide.

  • According to Gu's defence, Mr Heywood had a family history of
    cardiovascular disease. Since he was not a heavy drinker, could it be
    possible that he died naturally of a heart attack induced by excessive
  • According to the prosecution, the chief investigator took another
    blood sample, which later became a crucial piece of evidence after Mr
    Heywood's body had been cremated. However, the chief investigator
    carried that blood sample home without permission.

Four months later, tests on the second blood sample showed cyanide,
the amount of which was, by coincidence, just enough to kill a person.
Is there any evidence that the integrity of that blood sample was
safeguarded during that four-month period?

  • Was there a struggle before Mr Heywood's death? Gu said that he was
    dead before she left the room, his head resting on a pillow. When the
    police discovered Mr Heywood's body two days later, however, he was
    lying flat on the bed, and the mattress showed signs of having been
    rolled on.

Considering this evidence, a criminal expert I interviewed believes
that Mr Heywood was probably not killed by cyanide, which tends to kill
quickly, or there was not sufficient poison to kill him right away and
that he was actually still alive when Gu left the room.

  • According to the defence, after Gu left the crime scene, strangers'
    footprints were found on the balcony, but there were no signs of a
    break-in. Why has the court not investigated where these footprints came
  • The prosecution claimed to have collected 394 witness testimonies,
    but the trial was conducted without the direct participation and
    cross-examinations of key witnesses, including Chongqing police chief
    Wang Lijun, who fled to the US consulate there and personally brought
    the case to light.

Gu picked her defence lawyer from a list provided by the government a
month before the trial. For such an important case, why was the lawyer
given only a short period of time to study the case? And why didn't the
defence lawyer have a chance to question key witnesses during the trial?

  • There was no explicit mention of Gu's husband in the indictment.
    When Gu learnt that Mr Heywood was threatening her son, wouldn't she
    tell her husband, the local party boss? Was Bo Xilai involved in the
    plotting of the murder?
  • After the Chongqing police had ruled that Mr Heywood died of a heart
    attack from excessive alcohol consumption, Gu successfully persuaded
    the Heywood family to agree to a quick cremation without an autopsy. Did
    Gu or the Chongqing government pay money in exchange for the family's
  • The indictment pointed out that Gu and Heywood teamed up in 2005
    with a senior manager at a Chinese state-run enterprise in several real
    estate deals in Chongqing and in France.

If successful, Mr Heywood would have been awarded £40 million. But
the deals fell apart. Mr Heywood demanded 10 per cent of the original
amount as compensation.

There were no explanations of what the projects were, why the deal failed and what Mr Heywood's role was.

According to a source in Beijing, Bo Xilai, who was transferred to
Chongqing in 2007, halted the projects for fear that the deals could
jeopardise his political future. If that proves to be true, could it be
that the prosecution hid these details, which might contradict claims by
the government-controlled media that he was a corrupt official?

Gu and her family may have intentionally refrained from mounting a
vigorous defence against the murder charges and decided to strike a deal
with the government because she understood that the trial's real target
was her husband - whom senior party leaders in Beijing are hoping to
render guilty by association and destroy for good.

If she had fought against the murder charges, the Bo family's
political foes would have initiated corruption charges, which could also
be punishable by death. In China today, corruption is so rampant that
no government official is immune, and if such charges were made, her
son, her husband and many of her friends could be implicated. Between
the two, perhaps the murder charge seemed the better deal.

By actively cooperating with the government - she confessed to the
crime and implicated the police chief and his assistants - Gu aimed to
get her potential death sentence commuted.

As the Chinese saying goes, "as long as the green hills last, there
will always be wood to feed the stove". In Gu's case, keeping her life
and shielding her husband from criminal prosecution leaves open the
possibility of a comeback when the political winds shift.

Gu's father-in-law, Mr Bo Yibo, was branded a traitor during the
Cultural Revolution, beaten, paraded around and locked up in a prison
where he was often deprived of food and water. Three years after Mao
Zedong died, the case against him was overturned. He was reinstated by
the new leadership as the vice-premier of China and lived to age 99,
outliving most of his foes.

Given the complexities of the case and the tremendous amount of media
attention, one would have assumed that the Chinese government would
take the case seriously or at least attempt to honour due process.

Unfortunately, the trial was conducted hastily and shabbily, exposing
the ugliness of the Chinese legal system. One can only imagine the fate
of the thousands of faceless or nameless Chinese who are being judged
by the legal system without any media attention.

Gu's verdict will be decided by party leaders in Beijing, rather than
judges in court. Rushing to justify the ousting of Bo Xilai, who was a
strong contender for a spot on the powerful Politburo Standing
Committee, helps leaders in Beijing clear a major hurdle before the
leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year.

Therefore, the Chinese government will most likely give Gu a harsh
sentence. But the fundamental legal questions have not even been asked,
let alone answered.

Ho Pin, a New York-based publisher of Chinese-language
magazines and books, is the author of a forthcoming book on the Bo Xilai
case. This essay was translated by Wenguang Huang from the Chinese.


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