A murder and confession leave questions in China

Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2007 file photo, then Chinaese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, right, and his wife Gu Kailai attend a memorial ceremony for Bo's father Bo Yibo, a late revolutionary leader considered one of communist China's founding fathers, at a military hospital in Beijing. The murder of a British businessman by Gu, the wife of the ousted Chinese politician, was supposed to be an open-and-shut case, by the government’s account, but the trial proceedings, and official statements about them, have failed to clarify glaring omissions in the case. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File)
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BEIJING (AP) — The murder of a British businessman by the wife of an ousted Chinese politician was supposed to be an open-and-shut case, by the government's account. The victim threatened the life of Gu Kailai's son. Gu poisoned the Briton, was caught and confessed. End of story.

Not so fast. The trial proceedings, and official statements about them, have failed to clarify glaring omissions in the case.

Legal and political scholars say much of the case has been implausible, leaving major questions unanswered, not least of which is whether the victim posed any real threat to Gu's son at all. Also, why would a high official's wife carry out such a murder herself? Where is Bo Xilai, the alleged murderer's husband and man at the center of the messiest scandal in two decades to rock the Chinese leadership?

The government account depicts Gu as a depressed woman on medication who turned willful murderer after Briton Neil Heywood threatened the safety of her son, Bo Guagua. Gu lured the victim to a hotel in Chongqing, got him drunk then poured cyanide into his mouth. It says Gu and her co-defendant "confessed to intentional homicide" and appeared repentant in court last Thursday during a speedy, seven-hour trial.

"It sounds like a story from a fairy tale. The details of the case have very little credibility," Peking University law professor He Weifang said of the narrative via state media and official comments.

Much of the speculation outside the courtroom has centered on whether the slaying was the result of corrupt business dealings gone awry, or if Heywood was somehow involved in moving money overseas for Gu.

The official line on the motive — Gu protecting her son — serves to deflect any attention to potential corruption within what was one of China's top political families. It also serves up a punishable offense but with a mitigating circumstance that avoids the death penalty — thus, eliminating a punishment that might crystalize Gu's position as a scapegoat and draw an outcry among the public.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the motive helps, firstly, to "avoid reference to Bo Xilai and therefore the issue of corruption and abuse of power." Secondly, it shows that Gu "did it because she thought her son was in mortal danger."

"Therefore it was 'intentional homicide' that could be understood, and everything is playing out to script."

Gu's arrest and the ouster of her husband Bo, the Communist Party boss of Chongqing until March, sparked the biggest political turbulence in China since the putdown of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Her tightly orchestrated trial has been a step toward resolving the scandal before the party's once-a-decade leadership transition this fall. Before his fall, Bo was a contender for a top job.

The official Xinhua news agency said Gu accepted the indictment during the trial in the eastern city of Hefei, and is ready to accept her punishment. A verdict is to be handed down later.

But He, the law professor, said too many important questions remain, such as the nature of the threat Heywood allegedly posed to Gu's son. Xinhua said prosecutors presented emails exchanged between Heywood and Bo Guagua, and a man who attended the hearing said Heywood wrote that he would "destroy" the son.

But "in order to prove that there was an actual threat of death, or that her son was in a situation in which he faced immediate danger, there needs to be concrete evidence," He said. "The evidence is too ambiguous."

He also expressed skepticism that Heywood would willingly travel to Chongqing and have drinks with a woman after threatening her son. The legal expert also said it was "inconceivable" that Gu would personally carry out the deed.

Many other questions have been raised, including over the claim in Xinhua reports that Gu and Heywood became acquainted in 2005, which contradicts Western media reports that the two had known each other since the late 1990s when Bo Guagua, then 12, had just started going to a prestigious boarding school in Britain, apparently with Heywood's help.

No specific time line has been provided for the events leading up to the slaying. When exactly was Bo Guagua allegedly threatened by Heywood? By November last year, Bo Guagua was a Harvard Kennedy School graduate student living thousands of kilometers (miles) away from Britain. Why did Gu feel like Heywood posed a serious threat to her son?

The most conspicuous omission in official accounts of the crime so far is that of Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, given that his political downfall was precipitated by the exposure of the crime, allegedly committed by his wife in the city that he ruled with a firm grip. A man who attended the trial told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the court heard evidence that Chongqing police chief and Bo's close aide, Wang Lijun, was informed by Gu of her plan to kill Heywood and even participated in planning it for a time.

"If Wang Lijun was in on the conspiracy from the very beginning, could he have decided on something like this, either to be involved, or then to be out of it, without telling Bo Xilai?" asked Tsang. "It is hard to believe that Bo Xilai would not have been informed and indeed his permission requested."

In an odd and unexplained twist, Wang later became the person who exposed the crime, the court heard, according to the court attendee.

Another seeming irregularity is that the younger Bo did not have to testify in person in court despite being depicted as key to the murder motive, Tsang said.

Tsang said he believes that the party leadership has drawn three political parameters around the case: first, that murder by a senior leader's wife must be punished, though short of execution; second, that Bo Xilai's case is unlikely to be resolved before the political transition; and third, that Bo Guagua is not to be implicated out of concern that other party leaders' overseas children might someday be dragged into political affairs back home.

"If you accept that these are the basic political parameters first and the script was subsequently written to make it work, then you see how the script becomes eventually what it looks like and how it can't actually really be a consistent narrative," he said.

Still, trying the wife of a senior political leader already has served a purpose domestically, sending a message that all people are equal before the law, said Nicholas Howson, a Chinese law expert at University of Michigan.

The trial itself is "quite significant to the Chinese audience," Howson said. "To the extent that people know about it, I think that they wouldn't be that concerned about the obvious silliness in some of the evidence offered or some substantive aspects of the confession itself."

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Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gillianwong

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