The wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai invited a British businessman to a hotel room, where she got him drunk on wine and fed him poison, according to the evidence presented Thursday in one of China's highest-profile murder trials in years.

The trial of Gu Kailai and a household aide, who are accused of murdering Bo family associate Neil Heywood, lasted just four hours. International media were barred from the courtroom, so details of the case against Gu were provided by Tang Yigan, deputy director of the Hefei Intermediate People's Court in eastern China.

He did not say when a verdict was expected, but said Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, did not contest the murder charges.

The secretive and tightly orchestrated court proceeding marks a step toward resolving the messiest scandal the leadership has faced in two decades. Observers say the Communist Party leadership's main objective in the case is to keep the focus tightly on the murder case and not on larger allegations of corruption that could further taint the Chinese regime.

Death by poison

Tang said prosecutors told the court that Gu sent Zhang to meet and accompany Heywood from Beijing to the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing. On the night of Nov. 13, Gu went to Heywood's hotel and drank wine and tea with him.

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Gu Kailai faces charges of murdering Neil Heywood, a British businessman. (Reuters)

"When Heywood was drunk and vomited and wanted to drink water, she then took pre-prepared poison that she had asked Zhang Xiaojun to carry and poured it into Heywood's mouth, killing him," Tang said.

Tang repeated what the official Xinhua News Agency reported several weeks ago when announcing the indictment: that Gu and Heywood had a dispute over economic interests, and that Gu thought that Heywood was a threat to her son's safety and decided to have him killed. Tang did not specify what sort of threat Heywood was.

Tang said the prosecutors believed the facts of the crime were clear and the evidence sufficient, and that "Gu Kailai is the main culprit and Zhang is the accomplice."

Neither defendant nor their lawyers have ever publicly given their side of the story and neither has been seen for months.

Two British diplomats were allowed into the court under an agreement with China because of Heywood's nationality. The British Embassy in Beijing said no statement would be released as the trial was still ongoing.

Trial lasted only a few hours

While the short length of just several hours for a murder trial may surprise legal experts in other countries, it is common in China, where verdicts are even delivered the same day in serious cases involving the death penalty.

"Frankly, in my experience, it's very unusual for criminal trials [in China] to extend beyond a day," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong. "It's a pretty streamlined affair."

Rosenzweig said trials are short in part because witness testimony is usually written, instead of delivered in person.

"It's very rare to see what you see in other countries, where a trial starts on one day and extends through many, many days," he said. "The process is very structured. A Chinese criminal trial is not a free-flowing process."

In Gu's trial, Tang said material evidence, written evidence, witness statements and other materials were presented.

Tang said Gu's lawyer told the court that Heywood bore some responsibility for the cause of the crime, although he did not say why. The lawyer also said Gu had less than normal control of her actions when the crime was committed and that she had informed on the crimes of others. Tang did not say what crimes.

Tang said Zhang's lawyer asked for leniency because he was only an accomplice. He said that during the hearing, Gu seemed to be in good health with a stable mood.

Tang said the court would seriously study the evidence and arguments of both sides and make a judgment at a date to be announced in the future.

Gu and Zhang are likely to be found guilty of intentional homicide, which carries punishment ranging from more than 10 years in jail to a life sentence or the death penalty. In announcing the indictment about two weeks ago, Xinhua 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," it said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly labelled Neil Heywood as a politician. He was a businessman.
    Aug 09, 2012 7:16 AM ET