Neil Heywood murder trial: Cocktail of power and poison that rocked China
IT WAS depicted as the tragic yet accidental death of a charming, ebullient Old Harrovian who had one drink too many.
But in the latest chapter of a dark and lurid tale of poisoning, intrigue and corruption, the secretive murder trial of the wife of a disgraced Chinese politician ended after just seven hours
In a tightly orchestrated court case – which has sent shockwaves across the international community and exposed the frictions in the upper echelons of China’s ruling Communist Party – Gu Kailai did not contest the charge of killing Neil Heywood, the British businessman whose body was discovered in a hotel room on 15 November last year.
Ms Gu, whose husband, Bo Xilai, was until recently one of China’s most powerful politicians, lured Mr Heywood to the hotel in Chongqing, before getting him drunk and feeding him poison, according to yesterday’s testimony at the Intermediate People’s Court in the eastern city of Hefei.
Now, however, all eyes are turning to how China’s elite deal with the aftershocks of the country’s most controversial trial for more than 30 years. The deepening scandal saw Mr Bo ousted from power earlier this year, and amid wider allegations of corruption that could further taint the regime at a time when it is preparing for a once-a-decade political transition.
Mr Heywood’s death was initially dismissed by authorities as the result of a heart attack or excessive alcohol consumption, and his body was quickly cremated without a post-mortem examination. A memorial service, attended by family and friends, was held in London in December but, given the he was just 41 and a light drinker, there were more questions surrounding his final hours than answers.
Two months later, however, the circumstances surrounding the death of the elusive consultant with friends in high places in China exploded in dramatic fashion.
Wang Lijun, a long-time aide of Mr Bo and a former police chief in Chongqing, fled to the US consulate in the city of Chengdu. Apparently fearing for his safety if he remained in Chongqing, he told US diplomats how he suspected Mr Heywood had been murdered. What is more, he claimed that Mr Bo’s family had blood on their hands, allegations which led the Foreign Office to exert pressure on Beijing to investigate the death.
While few believe the full truth of Mr Heywood’s death will ever emerge, he figured prominently in the lives of the Bo family for a decade, helping smooth the way for the couple’s 24-year-old son, Bo Guagua, to study at a prep school in Berkshire, and in turn gaining access to the rising star of Chinese politics.
Some have claimed that Mr Heywood and Ms Gu had an affair, and it is thought they at least had a falling out over money. In both the court indictment and summaries offered up by officials yesterday, it is claimed that the relationship between Ms Gu and the Briton had deteriorated over financial issues, and she was worried it would threaten her and her son’s safety.
Whatever lay behind the demise of their once-fruitful union, the repercussions were grave for Ms Gu’s powerful husband. Once considered a potential future leader of China, Mr Bo was stripped of his most powerful posts in April, the same time his wife was named as a suspect in Mr Heywood’s murder.
The scandal kicked up talk of a political struggle involving the 64-year-old’s supporters seeking to derail succession plans calling for vice-president Xi Jinping to lead the party for the next decade.
Some of Mr Bo’s allies regarded the court case as part of an attack on his populist brand of politics in Chongqing, which appealed to many of the party’s leftists but was seen as dangerous by his enemies in Beijing.
When his wife was indicted for the murder last month, observers suggested the leadership had closed ranks and reached a consensus about how to deal with the case.
With Ms Gu and her co-accused, Zhang Xiaojun, a household aide, not contesting the charges, their guilt is all but assured, and they could face the death penalty.
International media were barred from the short trial yesterday, and details of the case against Ms Gu were provided afterward by Tang Yigan, the court’s deputy director.
Mr Tang said the prosecutors believed the facts of the crime were clear and the evidence sufficient, and that “Gu Kailai is the main culprit and Zhang is the accomplice”.
Before yesterday, Ms Gu, 53, had not been seen in months and has never publicly offered her side of the story. State broadcaster CCTV aired video during the day showing her being led into court with a sheaf of papers in one hand. In an apparent indication of the government’s desire to keep the trial low key, no report on the trial appeared on CCTV’s main evening news broadcast, which is more widely seen and where sensitive content is more stringently controlled.
Mr Tang said material evidence, written evidence, witness statements and other materials were presented. He said Ms Gu’s lawyer told the court that Mr Heywood bore some responsibility for the cause of the crime, although he did not say why.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office declined to comment until the outcome of the case, but said two British diplomats had attended the trial “to observe the proceedings and fulfil consular responsibilities to the Heywood family”.
Today, four former police officials from Chongqing will also go on trial at the same court, charged with covering up for Ms Gu in Mr Heywood’s murder.
The fate of Mr Bo, meanwhile, is in the hands of the Communist Party’s internal discipline and inspection commission, which is expected to issue a statement about the allegations he faces. That would open the way for a court trial with charges possibly including obstructing police work and abuse of power.
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