Bo Turns Trial Script on Its Head

Geoffrey Sant in The Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2013

Media Source

 Bo Xilai is introducing in his defense a foreign legal concept rarely seen by Chinese in a courtroom: innocent until proven guilty.

The once-powerful Communist Party official is accused of taking bribes, embezzlement of state funds and abuse of power in a trial that is set to continue into a third day Saturday. Lawyers say Mr. Bo faces certain conviction on at least some of the allegations against him. But several said they are impressed to see the media-savvy former top official declare his innocence. They applauded the transparency of court transcripts being published in near-real time throughout the first two days of the trial.

China's courts don't typically leave much opportunity for surprise, much less defense, but the politically charged Bo trial so far has appeared less staged than many expected.

"I think it is a real trial and real defense," said Zhai Jian, a Shanghai criminal defender.

According to transcripts released by the Intermediate People's Court in the eastern city of Jinan, Mr. Bo has attempted to bat away one allegation after another. He has questioned the credibility of witnesses—including his wife—who testified in person and on videotape of how he participated in bribery.

While Chinese law grants citizens the right to a legal defense, there is no presumption of innocence and the vast majority of criminal trials end in conviction. Typically in a Chinese court, defendants are labeled as criminals as they enter the courtroom—often in shackles and prison clothes under escort of armed police. A proverb illustrates their presumed fate: leniency for those who confess; severity for those who resist.

Mr. Zhai, who has represented defendants in high-profile corruption trials in recent years, estimates the conviction rate of his clients at around 95%. He said he sent a text message to Mr. Bo's attorney applauding the strategy of doing "what a lawyer is supposed to do in court."

Once a member of the leadership's Politburo and the son of a revolutionary veteran, Mr. Bo, who has appeared in court dressed in a casual white shirt instead of his more typical dapper suits, is no ordinary defendant. He appears to be wrestling for control of the message in what is widely considered a politicized prosecution, several lawyers said.

"In the show trials of China's past, the politics would drive the criminal prosecution," said Geoffrey Sant, adjunct professor at Fordham Law School. Mr. Bo is "a towering and influential figure," he said, and "the criminal prosecution is driving the politics."

The unusual degree of openness about the trial could help the Chinese leadership underscore a determination to tackle corruption, even among senior officials. As such, time allowed for Mr. Bo to show defiance in court could provide evidence the process is legitimate.

"The trial is a surprise to us," said Mao Lixin, a criminal lawyer at Shangquan Law Firm in Beijing. "But we don't know if it is surprising the authorities."

China's last trial of this stature took place 33 years ago when Mao Zedong's widow, Jiang Qing, and the Gang of Four faced charges of undermining the party. From a wooden stand fitted with two microphones, Ms. Jiang scolded her accusers before the inevitable guilty verdict and suspended death sentence.

A more typical political case was in July 1998, when former Beijing mayor and Politburo member Chen Xitong scowled as the head of a five-judge panel, wearing a green short-sleeved uniform and policeman-like hat, was shown on television announcing a 16-year sentence for corruption and dereliction of duty. In the report, broadcast by China Central Television, Mr. Chen didn't speak and the camera spent most of the time panning a cache of Rolex watches and Nikon cameras allegedly found at his villa.

Even less made it on the air in 2008, when Shanghai's ousted party chief Chen Liangyu, who had also been a Politburo member, was convicted on a host of corruption charges and ordered to spend 18 years in prison. Government websites erased Mr. Chen's image, but the party required its Shanghai membership to watch a film that featured officials who fell from grace along with Mr. Chen weeping and apologizing for looting the city.

Widespread coverage of Mr. Bo's trial offers him a stage. "The theatrics in this trial are really a reflection that the rigidity of political control over the judicial system is breaking down, and this is a good thing," said James Zimmerman, managing partner of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP in Beijing.

"Someone like Bo Xilai knows that he has some leverage," said Mr. Zimmerman. "His defiance is not an act of desperation. It's more of an act of confidence."