China's 'trial of the century' over in a day as Gu accepts murder charge

Ex-Party leader's wife now awaits verdict after admitting she killed British businessman

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The Independent Online

Gu Kailai, the wife of the fallen Communist leader Bo Xilai, did not contest charges brought against her yesterday on the first and last day of China's most high-profile trial in three decades, where she stood accused of luring British businessman Neil Heywood to a hotel to poison him.

Alongside her was Zhang Xiaojun, a Bo family employee, who was charged as an accessory to murder, and also did not contest the charges.

During the trial, which lasted just seven hours and was sealed off by heavy security, prosecutors said Gu met Mr Heywood in his hotel room for "alcohol and tea" on 13 November 2011.

"After Heywood was drunk, vomited and asked for water, she [Gu] put the poison she had prepared beforehand, and which Zhang had brought along to the hotel room, into Heywood's mouth, which led to Heywood's death," Xinhua state news agency said, quoting from the prosecutors' statement.

Wearing a black suit and white shirt, Gu appeared calm as she entered the Intermediate People's Court in Hefei in Anhui province – far from her husband's former seat of power in Chongqing in south-west China where Mr Heywood died – according to footage broadcast by China's state television service. Foreign media were prevented from attending.

The prosecution accused Gu of masterminding the murder because 41-year-old Mr Heywood had threatened the "physical safety" of her son, Bo Guagua – a mitigating factor which may mean she faces life imprisonment instead of a death sentence. The judgment will be delivered at a later date.

However, in addition to the fate of Gu, footage of the court's three judges sitting beneath a Communist Party emblem left no doubt about the wider issues also at stake. The case avoided any reference to allegations of corruption surrounding claims that Mr Heywood had financial dealings with the couple, which could have cast the leadership of the Communist Party in a poor light ahead of a top-level power transition later this year.

Analysts believe the trial is aimed at removing Mr Bo from the scandal, while keeping his powerful allies within the Communist Party onside. There are also fears he could implicate other party leaders.

Mr Bo, the ambitious former Chongqing party chief, might now avoid criminal charges and instead could face Party disciplinary censure.

"The trial went according to script," said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at Hong Kong's City University. "There was an agreement, she was ready to plead guilty. The authorities do not want too many details revealed," he added.

Analysts have said the trial has shown the public that the wife of an élite party member can be held to account. Comments in an online discussion on China's website were peppered with phrases such as "believe the law".

But many users of China's popular micro-blogging website Sina Weibo criticised the apparent lack of transparency. "Even the experts don't understand what was going on, they just present it as definitely the truth. It is cheating, and I would strongly request to show the trial live on TV," wrote Beixingfu.

Mr Heywood was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room. His death was initially deemed to be accidental and his body quickly cremated. But this explanation was called into question in February when the former Chongqing police chief arrived at a US consulate apparently offering evidence about Mr Heywood's death.

It was not clear whether a member of Mr Heywood's family attended the trial yesterday. According to a court document, an unnamed person speaking on behalf of his family said they would "respect" the court's decision.