China's Bo Trial Closes Amid Calls For 'Severe Punishment'

2013-08-26
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Bo Xilai is removed from the courtroom at the conclusion of his trial in Shandong province, Aug. 26, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / CCTV

Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan wrapped up the sensational trial of fallen ruling Chinese Communist Party political star Bo Xilai on Monday with demands from prosecutors for a "severe" punishment for the former Chongqing Party chief at the heart of a murder and corruption scandal.

Bo's crimes of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power were "extremely serious" and there were no mitigating factors, prosecutors told the Jinan Intermediate People's Court on Monday, using key terms used in Chinese law to determine whether a death penalty is appropriate.

"The prosecution demanded a heavy sentence in line with the law, as Bo committed very serious crimes," court spokesman Liu Yanjie told reporters at a news conference following the trial, which ended just after 1:00 p.m. local time.

"He pleaded not guilty to the charges, and there are no extenuating circumstances suggesting lighter punishment. It must be dealt with severely according to the law," the prosecution was quoted as saying in the official edited transcript of the trial posted to the Court's account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.

Judges may hand down the death penalty in cases of bribery involving more than 100,000 yuan (U.S. $16,000), in the absence of a guilty plea or any mitigating circumstances.

The prosecution told the court: "The defendant's crimes are extremely serious."

The court will announce the verdict "at a date to be decided," the official news agency Xinhua reported after the trial ended.

'Soap opera'

In the final hours of the trial, which was initially scheduled for two days and extended to five, Bo likened the case against him to the plot of a "bad soap opera," telling a tale of starred-crossed relationships, mental health problems, and corrupt practices going on around him, of which he was unaware.

Bo exposed what he said was a tangle of love relationships between himself, extramarital lovers, his wife Gu Kailai, murdered British businessman Neil Heywood and his former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who gave evidence on Sunday.

In what has been the most politically charged trial of a former high-ranking Party member since that of Mao's wife Jiang Qing in 1980, the outspoken and charismatic Bo mounted a feisty defense, cross-examining witnesses, dismissing his wife as "insane," and attacking the standard of the evidence presented against him throughout.

In his final words to the court, Bo painted himself as a largely honest official, yet an unfaithful husband, "haunted" by regret and unable to govern his own family or officials.

"I'm trapped deep in the disaster of being in prison," he said. "I'm haunted by all sorts of feelings and all I have left is the remaining time of my life."

"I failed to keep my family members and subordinates within bounds. I made significant mistakes. I feel guilty towards the party and the public."

But while Bo admitted he had made mistakes linked to the Heywood murder investigation and bore "some responsibility" for embezzled state funds that transferred to one of Gu's bank accounts, he denied all formal charges against him.

In Friday's session, he dismissed Gu as "insane," told Wang he was "full of lies and fraud," and compared another prosecution witness to a "mad dog."

Wang's Feb. 6, 2012 flight to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu had been motivated by his love for Gu, which "confused and overwhelmed" him. Sources close to the case have previously suggested that Wang was hoping to save his own skin after it emerged that Gu was a chief suspect in the Heywood murder.

Retracted confession

"I hadn't expected him to retract his confession," said Jiang Weiping, a Canada-based political analyst and former journalist with the official Xinhua news agency.

"Even though he [wasn't addressing the facts] in the trial, [I thought] that was in line with his personality and his mindset, and that it wouldn't influence the final outcome," said Jiang, who served six years in prison on charges of revealing state secrets after he wrote articles exposing official corruption, including about Bo's tenure in Dalian.

"Based on the evidence presented in court ... he has still been active in hindering the investigation."

On Monday, Bo said he had signed a confession while in custody of Party investigators in the hope of resuscitating his political career.

Jiang said Bo's retraction of his confession could be a tactical move, made in the hope of his eventual rescue.

"If they don't bring Bo Guagua back to China immediately, then he will have in his possession unimaginable wealth, vast sums, which he could use to overturn the case against Bo Xilai, and claim it was a miscarriage of justice," Jiang said.

"There have already been signs of this, so I think the government will move ahead with this process after the Bo case is wrapped up."

Gu was handed a suspended death sentence, commutable to a lengthy jail term on good behavior, in August 2012, for her role in Heywood's murder.

Wang was jailed for 15 years last September for corruption, abuse of power and defection.

'Last performance'

Veteran China analyst Willy Wo-lap Lam said Bo's appearance at the trial would likely be his last in public.

"This was Bo Xilai's last performance before leaving the political stage," Lam said. "He wanted to oblige his supporters, the leftists, and the people of Chongqing, and that's why he put up such a fight."

"He also wanted to address the historical record."

Bo's populist campaigns of revolutionary songs and anti-crime campaigns won him many plaudits in Chongqing, but lawyers and defendants caught up in his "strike black" campaigns say they were rife with forced confessions, torture and other abuses, with many people targeted for their wealth.

While more than 100 people attended the trial, most media organizations were restricted to reading delayed transcripts of the proceedings on the Court's Weibo account, and no live television footage was available. No foreign media were allowed into the courtroom.

The transcripts were sometimes delayed, and one mentioned Bo's consulting his "superiors" in the aftermath of Wang's flight to Chengdu, before being withdrawn and republished with that section deleted.

Bao Tong, a former political aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, hit out at claims by state media that the publication of transcripts showed a high level of confidence from China's new leadership under President Xi Jinping.

"If this was a true live broadcast, I would indeed believe that it reflected a high level of confidence from the new leadership," Bao Tong said in an essay broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service at the weekend.

"But a new problem has emerged. The genuine live broadcast has now been replaced by a counterfeit copy," Bao wrote.

"Who can say what that shows us?"

Beijing-based rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said there were still many questions left unanswered by the trials of all three main players in the scandal.

"It's crucial to have the correct legal process," Mo said. "Without it, [convictions] can be overturned later because people complain that they didn't receive due legal process in their trial."

"Of course, no one seriously doubts the case against Bo, but it's a politically driven trial, which means that strictly speaking it's not a legal trial."

Reported by Xin Lin, Yang Fan and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.