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China prepares for trial in sensational case of Neil Heywood slaying

Is it possible for the butler, who hasn't met with his lawyer yet, to get a fair trial in the poisoning of Neil Heywood, associate of political wife Gu Kailai?

August 06, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Books on Gu Kailai, wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, are displayed at a shop in Hong Kong. Gu could go on trial in the coming days, after being charged in the murder of a British businessman who was a close associate of the Bo family.
Books on Gu Kailai, wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, are displayed… (Vincent Yu, Associated…)

BEIJING — The lawyer for one of the defendants in China's most sensational murder case is emphatic: The butler did not do it.

Of course, prominent Beijing criminal lawyer Li Xiaolin has yet to meet with his client, Zhang Xiaojun, who is accused of spiking the drink of a British businessman with cyanide on the orders of his employer and famous codefendant, Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai.

After being retained by the 33-year-old butler's family, Li met regularly with Zhang's distraught young wife and his father, crafting a defense. Last month, he accompanied them to the city of Hefei, where Zhang and Gu were being held awaiting trial.

But that's as far as he got. On July 23, Li was told by prosecutors, no, he would not be able to meet with his client, and that in fact, another lawyer was being assigned from the public defender's office.

"Why? I can't figure it out," said Li, who is one of China's top defense attorneys, frequently handling corruption cases. "If Zhang is going to receive a fair trial, he is entitled to meet with his own lawyer."

As the murder trial of the century prepares to open in China, skepticism reigns about the likelihood of fairness, especially for Zhang, the most obscure figure in the melodrama consuming China.

Both Zhang and Gu have been held incommunicado — without access to their own lawyers — since their arrest in March. Although the lurid allegations are tabloid grist elsewhere in the world, in China, the media have been barred from running anything but official dispatches from the New China News Agency.

Even the date of the trial is a secret, although people close to the case say it is expected to open this week, probably Thursday.

The timing is carefully calibrated for the Chinese political calendar. The Communist Party wants the case wrapped up before a key party congress in the fall to select new leadership.

It probably doesn't hurt to have the whole messy affair in court while the tabloid-happy British press is otherwise engaged with the Olympic Games in London. Or that the trial is taking place in a city 600 miles from Beijing.

"The case will be processed very quickly according to the preplanned script," said Chen Ziming, a pro-democracy advocate in Beijing.

Ann Heywood, the mother of victim Neil Heywood, was also cynical about the upcoming trial.

"There are no human rights in China, of which I'm totally aware," said Heywood, speaking by telephone from London. She declined further comment.

The 41-year-old Heywood, appearing in photos as a dapper British gentleman, held various jobs in China, selling Aston Martins and Rolls-Royces, doing corporate research. He helped Bo's son get into London's elite Harrow boarding school, his own alma mater, and according to leaked Chinese government reports was used as a conduit to sneak money out of the country in violation of currency controls. Heywood reportedly may have threatened to expose the family's alleged improper movement of money.

Heywood was found dead Nov. 15 in a mountainside hotel in Chongqing, where Bo had been Communist Party secretary until earlier this year. The death was initially ruled a heart attack brought on by excess alcohol consumption, and the body promptly cremated. But in February, the police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to a nearby U.S. Consulate, claiming that Heywood had been slain and that Bo's family had threatened police who were trying to investigate.

Bo, 63, was stripped of his public positions but has not been formally charged. The son of one of Mao Tse-tung's closest comrades, Bo had been an enormously popular figure among neo-Maoists within the Communist Party; he still has legions of supporters muttering that the case was contrived to stem the threat he posed to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

"This case is a hot potato for Hu and Wen," said Gao Wenqian, senior policy advisor at New York-based Human Rights in China. "If they handle it too leniently, they risk a resurgence of Bo Xilai supporters in the leftist faction, but if they are too harsh, they risk a backlash."

Gao said he expects the trial to stick closely to the slaying and to gloss over the allegations that Bo's family was sending millions of dollars of ill-gotten political gains overseas through Heywood.

"They don't want to focus on overseas assets, because all Chinese leaders do the same and Bo Xilai's family wouldn't be the worst when it comes to corruption," Gao said.

The Chinese government is well aware of the pressure. In a recent editorial, the official Global Times newspaper promised a "landmark trial."

"So far, it has sent a message to society, that nobody, regardless of his or her status or power, can be exempt from punishment," the newspaper opined.

It is unclear whether the trial will be open to any members of the public. A British Embassy spokesman in Beijing said that it expects a consular officer will be allowed to attend.

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