China’s 99% Conviction Rate Leaves Zhou With Bo Xilai Odds
As they built their case in one of China’s highest-profile corruption trials, the two defense lawyers for former Communist Party star Bo Xilai used laptops without Internet connections and kept documents in a safe requiring both their keys to open.
The need for caution was imperative. Charged with abuse of power and graft, the former party chief of southwestern megacity Chongqing had been mooted as a future leader. When his trial began in August 2013, Bo stunned observers by recanting his confession and attacking prosecution witnesses in a hearing that was partially public via a near real-time court microblog.
Bo is back in the spotlight as the case against his confidante and former security chief Zhou Yongkang for bribery, abuse of power and leaking state secrets is readied for trial. Zhou is the highest-ranking official caught in President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft net, and his hearing will be a test of a legal system Xi has said he wants to make more transparent in a country with a conviction rate of more than 99 percent.
“Security was the major priority when I was handling the case, due to the sensitivity of his identity,” lawyer Wang Zhaofeng said of the trial where his client Bo was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. “We were not allowed to give information to anyone, even the family members.”
Official approval was needed for an assistant to be added to an overloaded defense team, Wang said in an interview in Beijing.
“Bo had doubts that we could defend him seriously,” he said. “When we were discussing a certain problem if we frowned or expressed any kind of facial expression, he would suspect we knew something he didn’t. It was really hard to win his trust.”
Analysts including University of Chicago political science professor Dali Yang said authorities publicized Bo’s trial through court transcripts on the Internet to show he was treated fairly. Zhou’s trial will probably be less open given the state secrets charges he faces and potential embarrassment to the top leadership, they said.
“Leaders, now more overtly repressive than at the time of Bo’s trial, may decide that it will not be desirable to emphasize the availability of self defense and cross examination to others,” said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University who specializes in China’s legal system.
Supreme Court President Zhou Qiang was reported in March by state news agency Xinhua as saying that Zhou’s trial will be open “in accordance with the law,” suggesting areas unrelated to state secrets may be made public. The investigation of Zhou found evidence that he ordered unauthorized spying on top leaders including Xi, two people familiar with the probe have previously said.
Parts of Bo’s trial, which occurred almost a year before an investigation into Zhou was announced, weren’t released, including his testimony that he received orders from a law and order committee headed by Zhou in early 2012 on how to cover up the defection of a police chief.
Bo also blamed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s disciplinary watchdog, for pressuring him into confessing to save himself and his wife Gu Kailai from the death penalty, a person present during his trial said, asking not to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. The CCDI did not reply to a fax seeking comment.
Gu accepted all the facts in her indictment and was ready to accept her punishment, Xinhua reported from her August 2012 trial where she was convicted of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood and given a suspended death sentence.
Cohen said Zhou’s trial would probably be more like Gu’s than the Bo hearing, though “each public portrayal has to be shaped in accordance with the defendant’s specific circumstances.”
Zhou leaked party and national secrets, Xinhua reported in December, citing a party statement announcing his expulsion. Together with Bo he “engaged in political activities” that “sabotaged party unity,” according to a Supreme People’s Court report in March.
The 72-year-old, who faces a possible death penalty or life in jail if convicted, can’t be reached for comment. No defense lawyer or date for his trial has been announced.
“The Chinese courts have made great efforts to boost transparency, especially in making verdicts available nationwide,” said Yang from the University of Chicago. Because of the state secrets charges, “Zhou’s trial will be open only partly,” he said. “If it’s closed, the official agencies will likely offer a summary quickly.”
The corruption charges against Zhou cover almost his entire political career from 1988 to 2012, according to his indictment cited by prosecutors. His intentional disclosure of state secrets “was particularly serious,” they said.
State media outlets have warned this year that factions within the party will not be tolerated, and Xi has urged officials to “strictly keep the party’s secrets”.
“Chinese authorities have super powers, and to fight against them as a lawyer, sometimes the courage is more important than the result,” said Bo’s lawyer Wang, who now advises Chinese families on their personal financial affairs.
“Bo was satisfied with my defending despite not being happy with the result,” Wang said. “But he knew it wasn’t me making the decision, and he can’t blame me for the final result as he knew I tried my best.”
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