Gu Kailai, wife of ousted senior politician Bo Xilai, will face charges of intentional homicide in a court hearing expected to open Thursday in Hefei, the capital of China’s Anhui province. Zhang Xiaojun, the butler of the once powerful family, is also charged in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood who was found dead in his hotel room last November.
While the case has huge political repercussions within the Chinese leadership, most Chinese newspapers did not carry the news of the scheduled hearing on Wednesday. Instead, front pages were reserved for news of Tuesday’s Olympic performances.
On its front page, the Beijing Evening News printed a picture of Liu Xiang limping off the track, with an aching expression on his face. The headline read “Olympic joy, tears and sadness.” There was no mention in the newspaper of Thursday’s trial.
Such omissions are not uncommon.
Since the scandal started in Chongqing with former police chief Wang Lijun’s request of protection at the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu, the Chinese government has sanctioned independent reports on the case and required news outlets to only use brief Xinhua announcements.
The Internet, which has become one of the most vibrant platforms to discuss current events in China, is similarly censored. Searches for the defendants’ names and other details of the case are blocked on microblogs.
Lawyer Li Xiaolin, famous for defending high profile cases of corruption in China, was asked to represent butler Zhang Xiaojun at the trial. After contacting Hefei’s High Court, where the case will be heard, Li’s application was rejected. Li says he will still be in court tomorrow.
“I hope that there will be a fair trial, that is it,” he said adding that so far the case had been handled according to the law.
Sensitive political trials in China are usually held behind closed doors, but a British embassy official said the courts accepted a formal request to have two officials listen to the hearing.
Neil Heywood’s death was first reported to be caused by excessive drinking, and his body was quickly cremated after he died.
But after months of speculation and rumors online, the Chinese media reported last April that Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun were responsible for the Briton’s death.
Media reports at the time hinted at economic disputes between Gu and Heywood, her business associate. But later reports accused Gu of holding a personal grudge against Heywood because he allegedly threatened her son, Bo Guagua.
News reports Wednesday said Bo Guagua, who has been silent since the scandal broke, submitted a witness statement to the courts, most likely in an attempt to help his mother’s case.
If found guilty of intentional homicide, Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun could face the death penalty.
Gu’s husband Bo Xilai is a so-called princeling, a son of a well respected senior government official whose stature within the party might have helped Bo establish his own political path. Until this scandal he was considered a prime candidate for a seat at the highest echelon of China’s power, the standing committee of the Communist Party politburo.
After his wife was indicted, he was charged with an unspecified “serious breach of regulation.”