BEIJING -- When Gu Kailai walks through courtroom doors to face charges of killing a British businessman, she’ll do so knowing that her fate already has been sealed.
As a 53-year-old lawyer and the wife of fallen Chinese political star Bo Xilai, Gu is familiar with how the system works. The Chinese Communist Party undoubtedly gave the green light to indict her on murder charges. When the trial begins, perhaps as early as next week, no judge in China is going to contradict that assertion.
Unless there’s a radical departure from established practice, the proceedings will serve as yet another reminder that while this nation has the trappings of government and a court system, it’s the Communist Party that wields ultimate power.
“There’s no use talking about frustrations. I just need to tell you the fact, the conclusion: China’s judiciary is not independent,” said Mo Shaoping, a prominent rights lawyer whose firm represented Liu Xiaobo, a dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while sitting in a Chinese prison cell.
A report by the official news wire Xinhua last week announcing that Gu had been charged with murder said “the evidence is irrefutable and substantial.” That choice of words seemed to leave no space for further inquiry.
“We don’t even know whether the defense lawyers will be allowed to say the defendants are not guilty,” said Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University’s School of Law and a renowned expert on the Chinese legal system. “In some cases they simply know, realistically, that would only infuriate the court, so they limit themselves to the discussion of the sentence.”
In a recent telephone interview, Cohen added: “This is going to put the Chinese system once again into the world spotlight, the Chinese criminal justice system, and she will become a poster girl for its failings.”
The case is caught up in the swirl of the biggest political scandal to shake Beijing in decades. Gu’s husband was seen until recently as having a good chance at a seat on the nation’s politburo standing committee, the very center of power here.
All that changed when a demoted police chief of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, sought refuge at the nearest U.S. consulate in February. Wang allegedly fled Chongqing after confronting Bo, then the city’s Communist Party secretary, with his suspicions that Gu had committed murder.
The body of the dead man in question, 41-year-old Briton Neil Heywood, reportedly was found last November at the city’s Lucky Holiday Hotel. While authorities initially chalked up Heywood’s death to natural causes – overconsumption of alcohol or a heart complication – Wang is said to have later accused Gu of poisoning him, possibly because of a disagreement over a plan to transfer money out of the country.
Bo was stripped of his job as Chongqing’s party boss in March. In April, the party removed Bo from his seat on the politburo, and Xinhua said Gu and a household employee were suspected of killing Heywood and had been taken into custody.
Authorities have made no public statement on when the trial will begin; there’s been speculation it could start as soon as Tuesday.
Although the verdict is by all indications a fait accompli, the sentencing is very much in question.