, HEFEI, China, Aug 9 – The wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai went on trial Thursday accused of murdering a British businessman, in one of China’s highest-profile prosecutions in decades.
Gu Kailai is all but certain to be found guilty in the case – the latest stage in a massive political scandal that has claimed her husband’s career and rocked the Communist party during a generational transition of power.
Zhang Mi, a spokeswoman for the Hefei Intermediate Court in eastern China where the trial is being held, told AFP by telephone the hearing began at 8.30am (0030 GMT) and would last just one day.
Analysts say the trial is an attempt to draw a line under a scandal that has sent shockwaves through the Communist party and exposed deep rifts ahead of the power handover.
It has evoked comparisons with the prosecution of Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s widow Jiang Qing, who along with the three other members of the “Gang of Four” was convicted for fomenting the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.
Jiang was sentenced to death but this was later commuted to life in prison, as is often the case for high-profile defendants in China.
Chinese legal experts say the result of Gu’s trial is likely to have been decided well in advance.
State news agency Xinhua has said there is “irrefutable and substantial” evidence that she along with family aide and co-defendant Zhang Xiaojun poisoned Neil Heywood, a Briton who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel.
It is thought no foreign media have been granted access to Thursday’s hearing, although in a rare concession, British diplomats were allowed to attend.
There were several dozen uniformed and plain-clothes police stationed outside the court and an AFP journalist saw one activist being dragged away by police as she called for more openness in China.
Gu is a former international lawyer whose life of wealth and privilege ended abruptly when she was accused earlier this year of poisoning Heywood.
The scandal brought down her husband Bo, a high-flying but divisive Communist official known for his aggressive crackdown on organised crime and for a Maoist-style “red revival” campaign that alienated party moderates.
He is now under investigation for corruption, but with Gu going to trial, some analysts believe she will bear the harsher consequences while Bo will be dealt with more lightly or after the leadership transition this autumn.
“The fact that they are putting her to trial means the top leadership has reached some kind of basic agreement,” said Steve Tsang, a professor and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.
“They are really focusing on getting Gu Kailai to pay. My bet is that Bo will get off relatively lightly and they are going to park Bo Xilai’s case until after the succession, the party Congress.”
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post daily said this week that Gu had confessed to the murder and to “economic crimes”, although she is charged only with intentional homicide.
Xinhua said she had “economic conflicts” with Heywood and feared for the safety of her son Bo Guagua, 24, who is believed to be in the United States where he recently completed a master’s degree.
The younger Bo told CNN this week he had submitted a witness statement to his mother’s defence team, and that he believes the “facts will speak for themselves” in the case.
Though Gu faces possible execution, legal experts say she is likely to be given a commuted death sentence that translates into 10 to 15 years in prison, with her concern for her son’s safety providing a mitigating circumstance.
Given her elite stature – her father was a renowned Communist general – she may also enjoy comfortable imprisonment conditions.