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In China, Gu Kailai confesses in murder trial, court says

The wife of a fallen Chinese political star and an aide confessed to poisoning a British friend, a court official says after an hours-long trial.

August 09, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Defendants Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun are escorted into court in Hefei, China. An official said after the one-day murder trial that they had confessed. “All the facts are clear and the evidence sufficient,” he said.
Defendants Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun are escorted into court in Hefei,… (CCTV )

BEIJING — AfterO.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in 1995, a well-connected Chinese lawyer pointed to the case as proof of the failure of the American judicial system.

"An American trial always gives bad people a chance to take advantage of the loopholes," the lawyer, Gu Kailai, wrote in a 1998 book about her experiences working in the United States. "The Chinese judicial system is fairest.... If you kill somebody, they'll arrest you, try you and shoot you."

On Thursday, Gu, the wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, was on the receiving end of Chinese justice. She appeared in court on charges of poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood, with whom she had a business spat.

Lawyers needed all of seven hours to present evidence in the case. There was no jury at Hefei Intermediate People's Court, no defense counsel to cross-examine witnesses — in fact hardly any witnesses at all. The evidence was presented in the form of prepared statements, with the exception of forensic evidence showing that Heywood had been poisoned.

At the end of the session, a court official held a news conference at a nearby hotel to announce that Gu, 53, and a codefendant, Zhang Xiaojun, 33, her family's butler, had confessed to murdering Heywood.

"The defendants did not dispute the accusation of intentional homicide," the deputy director of the court, Tang Yigan, told foreign reporters, who had been kept away from the courthouse, waiting in the rain behind a police cordon.

Despite the reported confessions, the court's official verdict will be handed down at the same time as sentencing.

Inside the courtroom, prosecutors described how Gu lured the 41-year-old Heywood to Chongqing, where her husband was Communist Party secretary. She took him to dinner and got him so drunk on expensive whiskey that he vomited and nearly passed out, according to a source in attendance.

With the help of her butler, Gu carried Heywood to his bed inside a hotel, according to a source who was inside the courtroom. When he asked for water, she gave him water laced with poison and left him in bed with a "Do not disturb" sign on the door. 

Heywood was found two days later, on Nov. 15.

"She admitted what she did. She said she was sorry for the damage to the country and the party," said the source, who asked not to be identified.

Although Heywood's body was promptly cremated, a police official had taken a blood sample. And closed-circuit video showed Gu going into the hotel room where the body was later discovered.

To a large extent, the Chinese legal system has been as much on trial as the defendants.

Gu was taken into custody in March, under a form of extrajudicial detention known as shuanggui, which is reserved for Communist Party members and officials. Her confession was made at a time when she was held incommunicado without access to lawyers hired by her family. Instead, the court assigned attorneys to represent Gu and Zhang.

Although her family and Zhang's hired defense lawyers, they were not permitted to meet with the defendants and the lawyers were not in court. Instead, the court assigned attorneys to represent them.

"The criminal law says a defendant can hire his own lawyer, but in a sensitive case like this, the government didn't want to take any chances," said Si Weijiang, a criminal defense attorney in Beijing. "They wanted to control the outcome and make sure the lawyers didn't leak to the press."

Even without her own lawyer, it appears that Gu enjoyed privileges not accorded to ordinary criminal defendants. Chinese television Thursday showed her in business attire, a black suit over a white blouse, instead of the orange prison garb that defendants usually wear in court. She appeared to have gained weight as well, so much so that bloggers Thursday night were questioning whether it was really Gu who appeared on television.

Chinese law carries the death penalty for premeditated murder, but there are hints she will be spared, with the blame increasingly placed on Heywood.

In court, prosecutors said that Heywood was demanding roughly $14 million from the family, as his cut of a real estate development in Chongqing that had fallen through, the source who attended the trial said.

An email sent by Heywood a few days before his death to 24-year-old Bo Guagua, Gu's son, threatened, "You must give me the money or you will be destroyed," said the source.

Several people who sat in the trial gave similar accounts with slight variations -- to be expected as attendees were not permitted to take notes or record the proceedings.

A student who attended wrote in a blog that was later deleted from the Chinese Internet that Heywood was alleged to have briefly held Guagua at his home in London, fueling Gu's fears that her son could be kidnapped. 

The statement read by Tang said Gu believed that "Heywood physically endangered the physical safety of her son."

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