JINAN – Ousted politician Bo Xilai lashed out at the start of his long-awaited trial Thursday, contesting a bribery charge arising from a lurid murder and corruption scandal that has shaken China’s communist leadership.
Bo, who was tipped for top office ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition last year, accused a key prosecution witness of “selling his soul” while describing purported testimony from his wife Gu Kailai as laughable.
Bo faces charges of bribery, embezzlement and abusing his political powers to cover up Gu’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011, according to the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan, in eastern China, which released regular updates on its Twitter-like weibo account.
But rather than following the script for Chinese political trials — where the accused tend to confess — Bo went on the offensive as he appeared in public for the first time in about 18 months, wearing an open-necked white shirt.
He denied accepting more than 1.1 million yuan ($180,000) in bribes from Dalian businessman Tang Xiaolin, saying he had “confessed against his will” while under interrogation by the Communist Party’s feared internal disciplinary body.
“I was willing to accept my legal responsibilities,” the 64-year-old said. “But I was not at all aware about the details of the matter. My mind was blank at the time.”
Tang, he said, was “utterly corrupt and a liar”, countering that the businessman himself had committed “major crimes” of embezzlement and bribery.
“He’s simply trying to get his punishment reduced,” Bo said. “That’s why he bites around like a mad dog.”
The judge told him: “Defendant, the court reminds you, you can’t use language slandering the dignity of the witness.”
Bo’s refusal to admit the charge contrasted with previous political cases in China including those of both Gu and Bo’s former police chief Wang Lijun, who confessed at their trials last year.
Gu was last year given a suspended death sentence — normally commuted to life imprisonment — for Heywood’s murder. Wang, whose flight to a US consulate blew the scandal open, got 15 years in jail for his role in covering up the killing, defection and other crimes.
Prosecutors said Bo received a total of 21.8 million yuan ($3.6 million) in bribes while mayor of Dalian, a northeastern port city, governor of Liaoning province and national minister of commerce, and that he also embezzled another 5.0 million yuan of public funds.
Bribes were received through Gu and their son Bo Guagua, they said.
The court said in a statement that Gu — in connection with the bribery charges — had provided evidence that she took tens of thousands of dollars at a time from safes at the couple’s homes.
But Bo described her purported testimony as “hilarious”.
“How could she say for certain that I put the $50,000 or $80,000 into the safes?” he asked.
The charges come under a law that prescribes a minimum of 10 years in jail for taking bribes of more than 100,000 yuan, the court said.
Bo was once the top communist official in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing and one of 25 members of the ruling party’s Politburo.
Authorities are touting the trial as proof of their intent to crack down on corruption.
But details about the scandal, which erupted in the build-up to a leadership handover that saw Xi Jinping elevated as party chief last year, have also exposed the high-flying lifestyles and murky dealings of China’s factionalized political elite.
Analysts say Bo’s revival of the trappings of China under Mao Zedong — including mass concerts singing “red” songs — in Chongqing alarmed sections of the top leadership, who saw the campaigns as a brash return to a bygone era of strongman rule.
“(Bo) was an outlier – who was obviously out for himself and sought publicity like a Western politician and frankly wasn’t well liked,” said James McGregor, chief of greater China operations for consultancy APCO Worldwide.
“Getting him out of the way was probably very important for the leadership,” he told AFP.
But Bo’s populist politics still draw supporters — one man held up a portrait of Mao outside the court and another onlooker surnamed He, who works part of the year in Chongqing, openly praised the fallen leader in front of a row of police.
“If this were a matter of justice, would they be so nervous?” he said, referring to the scores of blue-uniformed police who blocked roads around the entrances of the court in Shandong province, far from Bo’s power bases, early Thursday.