Murder trial at heart of Chinese political scandal adjourns without verdict

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Story highlights

  • Four policemen are charged with a cover-up and face trial Friday
  • Gu Kailai and a family aide are accused of murdering a British businessman
  • The defendants don't object to the prosecution's charges, a court official says
  • Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, is a former top official who has been stripped of his posts

Gu Kailai, the wife of a recently deposed top official in the Chinese Communist Party, raised no objections to the prosecution's charges in court Thursday that she and a family aide poisoned a British businessman last year, a court official said.

The closely watched trial, which took place Thursday under tight security in the eastern city of Hefei, adjourned in the afternoon without the announcement of a verdict, said Tang Yigan, deputy head of the Hefei Intermediate People's Court.

The hearing phase of the trial is over, and the verdict will be delivered at a later date after deliberations, Tang said, without giving a specific date.

Read more: Why the Gu trial is important

The trial is the latest phase in the fall from grace of the prominent family of Bo Xilai, Gu's husband, who until earlier this year had appeared destined to join the elite committee of leaders at the top of China's ruling party.

Gu and a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old British businessman, who was found dead in November in the southwestern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, the city where Bo was the Communist Party chief.

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Chinese authorities have said that Gu and her son had "conflicts" with Heywood "over economic interests" and that she was motivated to kill the Briton because of fears for her son's safety.

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    Prosecutors said in court Thursday that Gu and Zhang had invited Heywood to Chongqing from Beijing, according to Tang.

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    The three of them drank alcohol and tea at Heywood's hotel, as a result of which the Briton got drunk and began vomiting, the prosecutors alleged.

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    When he needed water, Gu gave Zhang some prepared poison that he put in Heywood's mouth, killing him that night, according to the prosecutors.

    Gu and Zhang didn't object to the account outlined by the prosecution, Tang said Thursday. Gu's lawyer made an argument for leniency based on diminished responsibility, he said.

    Timeline: Bo Xilai's fall from grace

    The saga involving Bo and Gu has become the most sensational Chinese political scandal in recent memory, creating an extraordinary set of challenges for the central government as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.

    In an indication of its sensitivity, the trial is taking place in Hefei, in Anhui province, more than 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) east of Chongqing, where support for Bo and his family remains strong.

    In a related case, Chinese state media reported Thursday that four top Chongqing policemen will be tried for trying to cover up Heywood's murder to help Gu.

    The four -- Guo Weiguo , Li Yang , Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi -- were charged July 30 and will face trial in Hefei on Friday, Xinhua and CCTV reported.

    They have been charged with "acting with partiality and defeating the ends of justice," the outlets reported.

    Despite the location of Gu's trial Thursday, a heavy police presence and pouring rain from a nearby tropical storm, supporters of Bo appeared outside the courthouse in Hefei.

    Read more: Bo Xilai: From rising star to scandal

    Plainclothes officials tried to stop the supporters from talking to members of the news media, dragging away at least two of them and putting them into the back of a van.

    CNN and other members of the international news media were unable to enter the court to observe the trial, but two consular officers from the British Embassy in Beijing were allowed to sit in the court.

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    "This is definitely more than a criminal trial," said Wenran Jiang, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. He added that the process is being closely watched for signs of what might happen to Bo, who is being investigated for "serious discipline violations" after being removed from his Chongqing and party posts.

    Gu's family had wanted to hire two prominent Beijing lawyers to represent her, but Chinese authorities have chosen two local attorneys to form her defense team, a family friend told CNN on Wednesday.

    The family planned to send one of the attorneys -- along with another well-known Beijing attorney -- into the courtroom as observers, with the approval of the court, said the friend, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the case.

    The cards appear to be stacked against Gu and Zhang, who are at the mercy of a Chinese court system that has been criticized by human rights advocates as being little more than a tool of the country's politically controlled state security apparatus.

    China's Bo Xilai: From rising star to scandal

    The conviction rate for first- and second-instance criminal trials in China stood at 99.9% in 2010, a U.S. State Department report said, citing the Chinese Supreme People's Court. In other words, out of more than 1 million criminal defendants tried in 2010, a total of 999 were acquitted.

    "In many politically sensitive trials," the U.S. report added, "courts handed down guilty verdicts with no deliberation immediately following proceedings."

    Gu and Zhang are unlikely to escape such summary justice.

    Read more: Bo and Gu on trial, in different ways

    "In this trial, frankly speaking, nobody believes that it's a totally independent judiciary and it will be judged just on the merits of the case," Jiang said. "It has been managed by the most senior level of leadership at every step."

    The defendants haven't seen their relatives since they were arrested in early April, a friend of Gu's family said last week. Bo has not been seen in public since he was stripped of his titles.

    When the murder charges were announced last month, Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported that "the facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial." If convicted, the two could face the death penalty.

    International media reports have speculated about the nature of Heywood's work in China and his ties to the Bo family. He had lived in China for more than a decade and was married to a Chinese woman. Among the companies he advised was a consulting firm founded by former officers of the British spy agency MI6.

    The couple's son, Bo Guagua, who Xinhua reported was involved in the "conflicts" with Heywood, said in an e-mail Tuesday that he had submitted a witness statement to the defense team for his mother.

    "I have faith that facts will speak for themselves," wrote Bo, 24, who graduated from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in May. He previously attended Oxford, graduating in 2010.

    His illustrious education is an indication of the influence and ambitions of his family, which is now engulfed by scandal.

    As the son of Bo Yibo, one the "eight immortals" of the revolution that created modern China, Bo Xilai was considered a strong contender for promotion into the Standing Committee of the party's Politburo, whose nine members decide how to run China.

    Bo and Gu on trial, in different ways

    He stood out as one of China's most dynamic and controversial politicians, notably for his populist policies in Chongqing that promoted Chinese Communist culture and aimed to crack down on organized crime.

    Gu is also descended from a revolutionary hero: Maj. Gen. Gu Jingsheng, a prominent military figure.

    Fluent in English, she is a lawyer who took a leading role in a legal battle in the United States involving several Chinese firms. She eventually won the lawsuit for the Chinese companies and later wrote a book about it.

    As well as being involved in her most notable professional triumph, the United States has also played a role in her undoing.

    The case she is now facing may never have come to light had it not been for an extraordinary series of actions by Wang Lijun, Bo's longtime lieutenant.

    Officials had quickly blamed Heywood's death on excessive alcohol consumption, and his body was cremated without an autopsy.

    But on February 6, Wang, the former police chief who had run the anti-crime push in Chongqing that helped to build Bo's reputation, sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu.

    He wanted political asylum and apparently feared for his life. Media reports and online posts have claimed that he had clashed with Bo after suggesting that Heywood had been poisoned amid a business dispute with Gu.

    He gave information about Heywood's death to U.S. officials before he left the consulate and was taken into custody by Chinese security forces. The British government was made aware of Wang's comments and made a formal request to Chinese authorities to investigate the case on February 15.

    A month later, Xinhua announced that Bo had been removed as party secretary of Chongqing. And less than a month after that, Gu and Zhang were arrested.

    The case has forced the Communist leadership to confront allegations of wrongdoing by a high-ranking member in an unusually public way, according to Douglas Paal, a top China analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

    "The disruption of his departure from office and his wife's crimes have made it difficult to present a facade of unity to their people," Paal said.

    That united front has been key to ruling China for 2,000 years, he said. The current generation of leaders has been particularly sensitive to maintaining it since 1989, when the party hierarchy split over how to deal with the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

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