Wed, Aug 15, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Baffling and contradictory details emerge from Gu Kailai trial

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, HEFEI, China

When Chinese authorities announced Gu Kailai’s (谷開來) detention on suspicion of killing British businessman Neil Heywood, her conviction was all but inevitable. On Thursday, she stood trial for premeditated murder and — according to state media — she confessed.

“I will accept and calmly face any sentence and I also expect a fair and just court decision,” she said in her first reported comments on the case.

Gu’s position as wife of a powerful but divisive leader, Bo Xilai (薄熙來), has driven fascination with the scandal. However, it has also ensured that the British businessman’s death remains as opaque as ever.

Perry Link of Princeton University compared the case to the mysterious 1971 death of the senior communist leader Lin Biao (林彪) in a plane crash.

“Something dramatic happened in the high levels of the mafia and we still, today, don’t know exactly what. For the party then, the official narrative was a much more important thing than the truth, and the same will be true for the Gu Kailai story today,” Link said.

The official version appears calibrated to justify the trial of a disgraced yet still popular leader’s wife, while defending the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party.

“I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy,” Gu said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Heywood and Gu were once so close that she was godmother to one of his children.

Yet Gu and her employee Zhang Xiaojun (張曉軍) are said to have poisoned the Briton because he had threatened and even imprisoned her only son, Bo Guagua (薄瓜瓜), over a business row.

One of those who knew Heywood described it as “a piece of party theater” with the courts shifting blame on to the foreign victim “when he is in no position to speak up.”

Emerging accounts of the closed-door hearing at Hefei intermediate people’s court also include apparently implausible claims and contradictions.

Heywood had moved to China in the 1990s, marrying a local woman but remained very much an old-fashioned patriot, taking pride in his Harrow education and playing croquet.

“He was a very, very nice man — a classic English gentleman. Men liked him; women liked him,” said a person who knew him well.

He told friends he met Bo Xilai while living in the northeastern city of Dalian, after writing to the then-mayor to introduce himself.

The link appears to have been useful for Heywood, who introduced foreign firms to key officials, but was also useful to the family. He helped them manage affairs in Britain, where Bo Guagua studied at Harrow, getting on so well with him that one friend even thought their closeness might have made Gu jealous.

How far he depended on his ties to the family is unclear. He also worked for the Beijing Aston Martin dealership and for Hakluyt, the business intelligence firm formed by former MI6 (British secret intelligence service) operatives, although the British government explicitly denied he was a spy.

One friend said Heywood was “cagey” about work.

Another said there was an unclear economic link, but thought it insubstantial. In any case, the relationship turned sour about four years ago.

“He felt hard done by,” a friend said.

The official court statement said simply that Gu believed Heywood was a threat to her son’s safety after an economic row. A more detailed account has surfaced on the Internet, purportedly from someone who was in court.

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