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August 08, 2012

Controversy Plagues China Trial Even Before It Starts

by Kate Woodsome, Lu Yang

A day before China’s biggest political trial in decades is set to open, the lawyer for one of the co-defendants says he hasn’t even met his client.

Li Xiaolin, a prominent Beijing criminal lawyer, says he’s planning to be in the courtroom when Zhang Xiaojun stands trial for conspiring with the wife of a disgraced Communist Party leader to poison British businessman Neil Heywood. But Li says he won’t be able to ask any questions. That job, he says, will be left up to the state-appointed lawyers.

“I know nothing more than you know about the entire case,” he told VOA in an interview Wednesday.

Zhang is accused of poisoning Heywood in Chongqing last November, a crime allegedly committed with Gu Kailai, the wife of the megacity’s former Communist Party boss Bo Xilai.

Li traveled nearly 1,000 kilometers from Beijing to Hefei, in Anhui province, where the trial is taking place, a journey many foreign journalists are making this week to try to cover the hearing. Their access to the story likely will be as limited as Li’s access to his client, however. Li says the only information he has gleaned about the crime is from state-run media.

“I can only make an assessment based on Xinhua News Agency and nothing more,” he said.

Xinhua is the only news agency in China reporting on the story. Its last dispatch reported July 26 that an investigation showed Gu and her son had disputes with Heywood over “economic interests.” Motivated by concerns about her son’s safety, Xinhua said Gu and Zhang, her butler, poisoned Heywood.

Li, Zhang’s lawyer, said even based on that limited report, his client should not be considered a guilty party.

“You can judge from what Xinhua said that Gu had some relationship with him [Heywood] and Zhang didn’t know him [Heywood], so who would you say killed Heywood?” he said.

Xinhua has presented the case as clear cut, reporting that the results of an investigation showed the defendants should be charged with intentional homicide. The news agency also placed unusual emphasis on the defendants’ rights and due process, a move that Madeline Earp of the Committee to Protect Journalists says likely aimed to contain domestic scrutiny of the trial.

“I think this is a sign that they want to keep the coverage very much focused on the criminal angle to prevent it from influencing perceptions of Bo Xilai as a politician and specifically as a privileged communist party leader who very likely was abusing his position,” Earp said.

Bo was a Communist Party darling slated to rise in the ranks during the party congress in November. He was stripped of his posts after his police chief reportedly took refuge in a nearby U.S. consulate, sharing stories of Heywood’s murder and Bo’s alleged cover-up of the crime. Bo likely will face trial before the party’s disciplinary committee.

Bo and Gu’s son, Bo Guagua, told CNN in an email Tuesday that he has submitted a witness statement to his mother’s defense team, since he was cited as a motivating factor in the murder. He said the facts would speak for themselves.

Gu’s family lawyer declined to comment to VOA, and the state-appointed defense teams are refusing to speak with the media.

Li, the butler’s lawyer, said he didn’t know about Bo Guagua’s letter. But he said even if the letter is real, he has no idea whether it can change Zhang’s sentence.