Gu Kailai's day in court will likely be soon — and short.
Now that the wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been indicted for murder, Chinese authorities are expected to proceed quickly on orders of a leadership keen to move past a huge scandal that has complicated its once-a-decade political transition.
Gu's legal proceedings could be under way in as little as 10 days, with an outcome likely to remove her from the public eye, at least, and that could even result in her execution.
Her indictment was announced Thursday. She and a family aide were charged with murdering a British businessman with whom the Bo family had close ties, the official Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report.
Given the high stakes the case has for the leadership, the announcement of the indictment likely means that leaders already have reached a behind-the-scenes agreement on the verdict.
"For a case that's this high profile, the state has a very clear idea of how they want it to come out," said Carl Minzer, a China law and governance expert at the Fordham Law School, who is currently in Beijing.
China's judiciary is not independent, and politically tricky cases are usually decided with input from Communist Party officials. The public and media are often kept out of the courts, especially for any sort of politically sensitive trial, and lawyers representing human rights activists and others who have upset the government often complain that basic defense rights are ignored.
A key question remains: What is to become of Bo, who remains under a separate, party investigation for unspecified wrongdoings? The leadership has given no clear signals.
Bo was a political high-flier who fell from power after his former police chief fled to a U.S. consulate and divulged suspicions that Gu was involved in Heywood's death. Three months ago, the government announced that Gu and Zhang Xiaojun, the family aide, were being investigated and that Bo was being suspended from the powerful Politburo for discipline violations that were not detailed.
The scandal exposed divisions in the leadership and affirmed an already skeptical public's dim view about corrupt dealings in the party. Ahead of a political transition expected in the fall, bringing Gu's case to a swift legal resolution will help remove a distraction.
If found guilty of intentional homicide, which appears likely, Gu and Zhang face punishment ranging from more than 10 years' imprisonment to life in jail or the death penalty.
While the court verdict may be a foregone conclusion, Cheng Li, an elite politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that with all the attention the case has drawn, the leadership is taking pains to show the prosecution is adhering to the law: "All indications are that the case will be presented in a legally well-grounded manner."
An editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper Friday said that the trial was a chance to show that all are equal before the law.
"The law should be the sole principle followed by the trial. No matter what impact the ruling will have, judges must be loyal to the law. This is a test of their commitment to the rule of law," the newspaper said.
Probably in preparation for Gu's trial, French architect Patrick Devillers arrived in China last week from Cambodia, where he had been living. He told French diplomats that he was traveling to China to assist in an investigation. Devillers reportedly helped Bo rebuild the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian when Bo was the city's mayor in the 1990s.
Many other details of the case remain undisclosed, potentially raising questions.
What kind of questions?
It is unclear why the case is being heard in the central city of Hefei though the murder took place in Chongqing. But trials of politicians accused of malfeasance have been held in other cities outside their influence. The 2008 corruption trial of former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu was held in Tianjin. In Gu's case, authorities might also be hoping to avoid holding a trial in Chongqing, where Bo remains popular and a court hearing could attract protesting supporters, Minzer said.
Xinhua said prosecutors have talked to the lawyers of the defendants — but did not say who the lawyers were. Meanwhile, Beijing attorney Shen Zhigeng told The Associated Press late Thursday that Gu's mother approached him and that he agreed to her request that he represent Gu.
But, he said, the court had yet to approve and that he has not been able to meet Gu or see details of the charges. By Friday, Shen appeared to have come under pressure to distance himself from Gu. A call to his mobile phone was answered by a man who refused to identify himself and said: "We are not Gu Kailai's lawyer. Please do not call here anymore," then hung up.
A few scenarios could result from the trial: If Gu and Zhang are found guilty of both planning and participating in the murder, they will both be sentenced to death, but if a criminal appraisal shows that Gu suffers mental health issues, she could be given a more lenient sentence or even be exempt from punishment, said prominent Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping.
Another potential mitigating factor would be if Gu could show that she was acting to protect herself from danger, he added.
The Xinhua report said that Gu had a falling out with Heywood over money and worried that it would threaten her son's safety.
Xinhua, however, made clear the government considers the verdict a foregone conclusion. "The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial," the report said.
- Associated Press writers Isolda Morillo and Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.