Gu Kailai, the wife of a Chinese Politburo member, and her butler both admitted poisoning a British businessman with whom the family had a financial dispute, a court official told reporters in a press conference Thursday.
At the end of a daylong trial in the provincial capital of Hefei, deputy court director Tang Yigan said that “the defendants did not dispute the accusation of intentional homicide” -- or what in American legal terms would be called premeditated murder.
In the most detailed public airing in the salacious murder case rocking the Chinese Communist Party, Tang said that in November Gu, 54, had lured the victim, 41-year-old Neil Heywood, to Chongqing, where her husband, Bo Xilai, served until recently as party secretary. At the Lucky Holiday Hotel where Heywood was staying, the two drank tea and alcohol together. When Heywood got drunk and began to throw up, he requested a glass of water, which was supplied by the family’s butler, Zhang Xiaojun.
"Bogu Kailai asked Zhang to pour the pre-prepared poison into Neil Heywood’s mouth," said Tang, referring to her by her married name. “All the facts are clear and the evidence sufficient.”
Despite the confession, a formal verdict has yet to be delivered by the court and Tang did not say when that would take place. Under the Chinese legal system, the sentence is handed down at the same time.
Chinese law carries the death penalty for premeditated murder, but the court official hinted that the court might show her lenience. Tang said that Gu and her son, 24-year-old Bo Guagua, had a financial dispute with Heywood and Gu believed that “Heywood physically endangered the physical safety of her son.”
"The lawyers of the defendants brought up that the victim is partially responsible for causing the crime," Tang said in the press conference. "When Bogu Kailai committed her crime, her ability to control her actions was weaker than an ordinary person."
In calculated leaks to Chinese-language media abroad, officials have suggested before that Gu was mentally ill.
Heywood’s body was discovered in his hotel room Nov. 15, which as coincidence has it was also Gu’s birthday. Friends have speculated that she might have lured him to Chongqing to celebrate her birthday. Heywood had lived in China for nearly two decades and was an old friend of the family and a mentor to the couple’s son, Bo Guagua, whom he had helped get into his own alma mater, the prestigious Harrow boarding school in London.
The exact nature of the spat is unclear. Chinese investigators have been probing allegations that Gu, a successful lawyer in her own right who used to represent companies doing business in her husband’s jurisdiction, sent millions of dollars of possibly illegal earnings abroad through Heywood and other foreign businessmen. Heywood, some suggest, was not being well-paid and threatened to blow the whistle on both Gu and her son, who was living in expensive apartments abroad and seen driving luxury cars.
Bo Guagua, who recently graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School, is believed to be in hiding in the United States, fearful of returning to China. In a statement e-mailed to CNN earlier in the week, he wrote, "As I was cited as a motivating factor for the crimes accused of my mother, I have already submitted my witness statement. I hope that my mother will have the opportunity to review them. … I have faith that the facts will speak for themselves."
The evidence at the trial was presented mainly in the form of sworn statements. The only live witness was apparently a forensic scientist who presented a report on samples taken from Heywood’s body before it was cremated.
The trial took place in the heavily guarded Hefei Intermediate Court with foreign press standing out in the pouring rain, the aftermath of a typhoon. A handful of well wishers, supporters of Bo Xilai who alleged the case is political persecution, were quickly nabbed by police. The only foreigners allowed inside were apparently two officials of the British Embassy.
Both Gu and Zhang were represented by court-appointed attorneys and lawyers hired by their families were not permitted to meet with them or to attend. Nevertheless, the Chinese government appeared to take pains to show that the trial was fair and open, holding a press conference at the hotel, a rare concession to human rights activists and media who complained about the closed trial.
"We have allowed the lawyers of the defendants to review all the court documents to ensure the legal rights of the defendants and the victim’s family," Tang said.
The sensational murder case has rattled the Communist Party in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade power transition this fall.
Bo, a charming populist with a following among the stauncher Maoists, was seen as a leading contender for the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo until his downfall earlier this year. He was removed from all his posts in March after Wang Lijun, the police chief in Chongqing, fled to a nearby U.S. consulate alleging that Bo had quashed an investigation into Heywood’s death and was threatening police who tried to probe further. It is unclear whether Bo will be charged with obstruction of justice or with financial crimes that remain under investigation.
-- Barbara Demick, reporting from Beijing