China awaits verdict in Gu Kailai murder trial

Carl Minzner in Agence France-Presse, August 12, 2012

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BEIJING — China appears to be preparing the public for sparing from execution the wife of politician Bo Xilai who is accused of murdering a British man, a legal expert said Sunday, as a verdict is awaited in the politically-charged case.

Bo's wife Gu Kailai and an accomplice were tried on Thursday for poisoning Neil Heywood, allegedly after her son fell out with the businessman in a dispute over a land project.

In a lengthy and unusual report released through China's official Xinhua news agency on Friday, Gu admitted guilt and blamed her actions on a mental breakdown over fears Heywood had threatened her son.

The court heard Heywood had demanded 13 million pounds ($20 million), and sent Bo Guagua an email threatening "you will be destroyed", a source who attended the hearing, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

The verdict is expected to be delivered at a later date, possibly days or weeks away, and while murder carries the death penalty in China, experts say Gu is likely to be spared execution and will instead face a long jail term.

"They're attempting to construct a narrative for the domestic Chinese audience. If she's not going to get the death penalty, then you need to explain why," said Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese law at the Fordham School of Law.

"Trying to protect the child, mental issues... that could be the type of factors that are going to be cited," he told AFP.

Li Xiaolin, a lawyer for another person accused in the case, Zhang Xiaojun, said the court in the eastern city of Hefei has not said when it might issue a ruling, but it could be within weeks.

"Maybe before the end of August. Nobody knows for sure though," Li told AFP.

Heywood's murder and allegations of a cover-up sparked the biggest political scandal in China for years and led to the downfall of Bo, who had been tipped to become one of the ruling Communist Party's top leaders.

It also exposed deep divisions among China's rulers ahead of a sensitive 10-yearly handover of power later this year, and observers say the party is keen to swiftly draw a line under the controversy.

"This is a case which cuts to the heart of core issues of leadership transition and political power at the top," Minzner added. "Such cases have always been decided way in advance."

Four Chongqing police officers tasked with investigating Heywood's death admitted to covering up the murder at a separate trial at the Hefei court on Friday, a court official said.

Hong Kong media has reported that former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who reportedly gave details about the crime when he fled to a US consulate, would also face trial for treason within days.

The South China Morning Post said Wang could be tried at a court in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where he fled in February before leaving the consulate and surrendering to Chinese authorities.

Court officials in Chengdu could not be reached for comment on Sunday.