Vaunted legal reform came up short in Gu Kailai case
It was not only Gu Kailai , wife of disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai , who was on trial in the biggest criminal scandal in the mainland's recent history. China's justice system also faced scrutiny. After decades of legal reforms, this was a chance for authorities to show support in the international spotlight for the rule of law, free of political influence. Instead, a court in Hefei in Anhui province, hundreds of kilometres from where the crime took place, dealt with a complicated case within seven hours, raising considerably more questions than the answers that were provided.
Officials did try to show that the case over the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood was handled in accordance with the law. But while two diplomats from Britain were allowed to observe proceedings, neither the dead man's wife nor mother were present and, as is routine in mainland courts, the foreign media was barred. Concerns emerged as soon as the trial before the Hefei Intermediate People's Court was over last Thursday, with Gu having pleaded guilty. Revelations from sources since have done nothing to ease doubts.
Neither Gu nor family aide Zhang Xiaojun, on trial with her, were allowed to appoint their own lawyers and, it seems, no witnesses were called. Instead, prosecutors read witnesses' pre-trial statements. An especially glaring omission was any mention of Gu's husband, who remains under detention for serious breaches of party discipline. If Gu was convinced, as the court apparently heard, that Heywood was threatening the life of their son, surely he was a material witness.
Moreover, the court was told that former Chongqing police chief and Bo henchman Wang Lijun was implicated in a plot to frame Heywood in a drugs bust and in an attempt to cover up the murder - another link to Bo. Yet another was Gu's alleged economic crimes involving a Chongqing project under her husband's jurisdiction. Wang is to stand trial on separate charges soon. Meanwhile, Gu has apparently shouldered the blame to avoid implicating Bo.
This has prompted political and legal analysts to conclude that the proceedings were influenced by top leaders eager to distance Bo from the scandal and limit damage to the party's image ahead of the upcoming leadership transition. In that case it seems unlikely the sentencing hearing will throw much more light on the affair. Yet, Heywood's death should be a sideshow to the high-level criminality that would seem to have gone on in the municipality. How many people's rights were violated on the orders of Bo and his henchmen and how many billions in assets were seized remain unknown.
Ironically, it was Bo's disregard for the rule of law in his anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing that polarised opinion within the party and among the people. His wife's case is a missed chance to promote it.