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Chinese Court Hears Murder Case In One Day


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In China, the most politically sensitive and sensational criminal case in decades took just one day to try. Today, Chinese prosecutors described how the wife of a fallen Communist Party leader forcibly poisoned a drunken British businessman. Court officials said a verdict will come later. The case involves a famous Chinese political family and has rocked the Communist Party establishment. NPR's Frank Langfitt spent part of the day outside the courthouse in central China.

And Frank, tell us about the accused, and also what was presented today as a case by the prosecution.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Sure, Renee. The accused's name is Gu Kailai and the reason everyone's focused on her is she's the wife of a man named Bo Xilai, who's a very famous, charismatic politician here who was aspiring to get into the top leadership of the party this year. Now, the prosecutors, when they presented their case, they said that Gu got into a dispute over economic issues with a British man named Neil Heywood. And from some reports, apparently Heywood may have been helping her transfer money out of the country, although the prosecutors didn't want to get into that.

Well, according to the prosecutors, Heywood threatened her son, who he'd helped get into a British boarding school earlier. And what they said is that Gu then lured him to a hotel in western China. Heywood became drunk, threw up and - as fantastic as this sounds - prosecutors insist that Gu actually forced poison into his mouth with the help of an assistant.

MONTAGNE: What did Gu Kailai say in her defense in court today?

LANGFITT: Well, according to the local court officials, she didn't challenge this version of events. It's hard to know exactly what happened in the court because it's not open to the public or foreign reporters. There were some family members here.

She could face the death penalty. Her defense attorney - incidentally, a court appointed one; she couldn't use her own attorneys under the kind of way this was done and kind of under Chinese legal system. Her defense attorney said she acted under duress and fear for her son. And this could be seen as a mitigating circumstance.

I actually met a family friend in the hotel today where I'm staying. And she was really stricken. And she said the family, you know, she doesn't expect that Gu will get the death penalty, but people are very afraid she's going to get a long sentence.

MONTAGNE: And what are the political ramifications of this case? I mean, for one thing, you said they didn't want to get into the charges that she might've transferred money out of the country. I mean, what is going on here politically?

LANGFITT: Well, you have this story on the surface, but there's an enormous political subtext. The issue of whatever this economic dispute was, there's a feeling by many, many Chinese that Chinese leaders here and their kids and family members are getting money out of the country. And the prosecutors don't want to get into that because it would be embarrassing and would just fuel resentment.

But the reason this really gets such attention is because of Bo Xilai. He ran a sort of a very - what's called a Cultural Revolution-style campaign in Chongqing, where he was the party boss. And recently he was confiscating the fortunes of local businessmen, jailing them. And a lot of other leaders in the party, frankly, from all that I can tell from analysts, is they were very worried about him getting to the top ranks of the party; they were afraid he might use these very kind of tactics against them.

And so what this case has done - this murder case against his wife - is it's allowed his political rivals to sideline him. In fact, Bo Xilai is now in detention. And after the verdict in this case, whenever that comes, then the Communist Party will deal with him.

MONTAGNE: Well, how much, Frank, are Chinese people talking about this trial and how much do they actually know about it?

LANGFITT: It's fascinating. I was talking to a professor in Hong Kong yesterday and he said, oh, all my friends are talking about it. But when I talk to a lot of ordinary Chinese I know back in Shanghai, and even here, the government has done such a good job of giving so little information out that most people don't know much about it all.

I was talking to a woman I know who works in my apartment building who when I said Gu Kailai she had no idea who I was talking about. I also talked to a man today here in Hefei in Anhui Province in central China and he said he knew about it but most people aren't that interested, and he was much more interested in talking about how Chinese athletes were doing at the Olympics.

MONTAGNE: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it.

MONTAGNE: NPR China correspondent Frank Langfitt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.