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Outside View: Chinese judges play pre-scripted 'Clue'?

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Aug. 21, 2012 at 6:30 AM
HERNDON, Va., Aug. 21 (UPI) -- In the make-believe world of television, writers of crime dramas demonstrate a talent for incorporating, within the confines of a one-hour show, the entire program's story - the commission of the crime, building the case against the suspect, the trial and ultimate conviction of the criminal.

Obviously, in reality, events occur over a much longer timeframe. A trial alone can take days, weeks or even months as evidence of guilt is produced by the prosecution and then countered by the defense's introduction of evidence of innocence.

But, in China, trials can last minutes, especially when it is in the political interests of the government to do so -- suggesting guilt or innocence is determined beforehand. Either China's judges have ESP or reality and make-believe have merged in the courtroom -- as one trial in particular -- for murder -- occurred with lightning speed, assuredly the result of high level government scripting.

Even television scriptwriters would have been impressed with the speed with which the trial of Gu Kailai, whose husband is the recently disgraced Chinese leader, Bo Xilai, was dispatched.

Gu and an assistant, Zhang Xiaojun, were accused of killing British businessman Neil Heywood last November. The motive stemmed from Heywood allegedly threatening Gu's son and revealing her illegal activities due to a business deal gone bad between Heywood and Gu. Residing in Hong Kong, Heywood was lured back to China where Gu allegedly poisoned him.

The trial lasted approximately 480 minutes. To ensure it didn't drag on, Gu wasn't allowed representation by attorneys of her choice. Instead, the Chinese government selected a legal team that clearly knew and accepted the defense limitations imposed upon it.

The prosecution didn't even have to bring in a key witness who allegedly had personal knowledge of Gu's guilt as she had confessed to him, enlisting the assistance of others under his command to cover up the crime.

It was the surprise, but temporary, defection to the U.S. consulate of this witness -- the police chief of Chongqing municipality, Wang Lijun -- that unraveled the crime.

Wang was deputy mayor of Chongqing, working directly for Bo as mayor and a contender for China's top position. When Gu met with Wang, unbeknown to her, Wang secretly recorded her confession and later took blood samples from the victim before the body was cremated.

Despite this, the death was initially declared an accident.

However, a falling out between Bo and Wang occurred in February over how to handle the case, which was what prompted Wang to temporarily seek refuge at the U.S. consulate in a nearby city. Wang allegedly shared details of Heywood's death with U.S. officials but, within 24 hours and possibly at U.S. urging, surrendered to Chinese intelligence officers. With the Heywood "cat out of the bag," Beijing could no longer dismiss the death publicly as accidental.

There was a sense of urgency by high-level government officials to move the case along expeditiously so as not to overshadow a leadership transition to take place later this year.

Additionally, concerns arose over Gu and Bo's wealth becoming an issue and thus placing into the spotlight the wealth of other senior government officials.

Therefore, it was important trial issues be controlled. Within four months of Gu's April arrest, the script for her trial apparently was completed -- only requiring the actors play it out in a closed proceeding Aug. 9. Key to the fast-moving script was Gu's cooperation in pleading guilty.

While the trial was completed in one day with Gu admitting guilt, verdict and sentencing was "to be continued."

Just like fans of the 1970s show "Dallas" wondered "Who shot J.R.?" China watchers only wondered what punishment Gu would receive. A "trial" balloon was floated at trial suggesting extenuating circumstances due to Gu's depression and mental breakdown.

Unsurprisingly, at trial's end she said she would "accept and calmly face any sentence," most likely because she already knew what was to follow.

Monday, the court found Gu guilty, suspending the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment based on her weakened mental capacity and cooperation in the investigation.

While for many China watchers, the script may seem to end there, it won't. Sometime after China's leadership transition, Gu will most likely be quietly released for good behavior.

Most telling about the Chinese leadership's interest in not having this issue rear its ugly head again in an untimely manner is Gu's waiver of all rights of appeal -- a decision perhaps influenced by the court's 99.9 percent conviction rate.

The bottom line is, when Gu eventually is released from prison, it will be surprising if she serves more time than most of China's human rights activists whose only "crimes" were seeking the recognition of the dignity of human life -- not the taking of it.

Like the lyrics from the song "Key Largo," Bo and Gu must now be reflecting upon the fact, "We had it all; just like Bogie and Bacall." But, unfortunately for them, greed was their undoing.

The murder mystery board game "Clue" was very popular in the United States many years ago. It required players to pick cards and, based on information obtained during the game, determine the murderer's identity, the weapon used and the situs of the crime.

The game of determining Gu Kailai's guilt was far less difficult than playing "Clue" as the outcome was pre-scripted. But this should have come as no surprise to Gu for, as a lawyer herself, she was well aware of how the legal game is played in China.

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(James. G. Zumwalt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer is author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields" and "Living the Juche Lie -- North Korea's Kim Dynasty.")

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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