Bo Xilai trial resumes in China after dramatic first day

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Courtesy: CNN

JINAN, China (CNN) — The trial of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai resumed Friday, a day after the charismatic former top official mounted an unexpectedly resolute defense against the prosecution’s accusations of bribery.

Once a rising star in the upper echelons of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Bo is now on trial on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power.

His dramatic downfall — laced with tales of murder, corruption and betrayal — set off the party’s biggest political crisis in decades.

A magnetic and controversial figure, Bo has spent more than a year in detention. During that time, his name has regularly been featured in headlines, but he has been kept out of public view.

On Thursday, he returned to the spotlight, albeit one under the control of Chinese authorities.

Many observers had expected the high-profile court hearing in the eastern city of Jinan to stick to a script of accusation, admission and conviction.

But Bo — a maverick, unpredictable leader when he was in power — appeared to have resolved not to let the prosecution’s allegations against him go unchallenged.

An ‘eloquent’ defense

He attacked the accounts given in court by key witnesses, said he had made an earlier confession “unwillingly” and described written testimony from his imprisoned wife as “ridiculous.”

Journalists from the international news media weren’t allowed inside the courtroom. But throughout Thursday, the court’s official microblog account delivered frequent, detailed updates of what was happening inside.

Its candid account of Bo’s strong counterattack against the prosecution drew widespread interest in China, attracting more than 300,000 followers on the country’s Twitter-like Weibo service.

China watchers were left to puzzle over whether Bo’s forceful first-day defense was an unplanned break from the script or still part of a broader deal he may have struck with Communist Party power brokers.

“All of a sudden, in my view, Bo Xilai has decided not to cooperate, but not completely. Because he did not go too far to condemn other leaders or reveal some other problems,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.

The prosecutors were “terrible,” Li said, while Bo was “clear, focused, articulate and eloquent.”

Conviction still seen as likely

Although the effectiveness of Bo’s performance so far doesn’t mean the court will acquit him, it may make it tougher for it to mete out a heavy sentence.

The conviction rate for criminal trials and their appeals in China — where the party controls police, prosecution and courts — stood at 99.9% in 2010, a U.S. State Department report cited the Supreme People’s Court as saying.

“Of course he will be convicted, otherwise it would be disastrous,” Li said. “But the sentencing now can’t be very severe because of the nature of the charge and how poorly they’ve conducted this trial.”

It remains to be seen if the prosecutors’ performance improves as the case continues. The court addressed the bribery charges on Thursday and still has to cover the allegations of embezzlement and abuse of power.

Authorities published photos Thursday of Bo, who hadn’t been seen in public since he was stripped of his high-ranking party posts in April 2012.

One image showed him standing at the dock in a white, long-sleeved shirt, flanked by two tall uniformed police officers. His hands, clasped in front of him, were not in handcuffs, and he appeared little changed compared with pictures taken before he disappeared from public view.

A career unravels

Bo is a princeling, a term that refers to the children of revolutionary veterans who boast of political connections and influence. His late father, Bo Yibo, was a revolutionary contemporary of Mao Zedong and former leader Deng Xiaoping.

Over the past three decades, Bo rose to power as a city mayor, provincial governor, minister of commerce and member of the Politburo, the powerful policymaking body of the Communist Party.

A charismatic and urbane politician, Bo was credited with a spectacular, albeit brutal, crackdown on organized crime during his time in Chongqing.

But when his deputy, Wang Lijun, walked into the U.S. Consulate in the city of Chengdu in February of last year and told American diplomats that Bo’s wife, Gu, was an accomplice in a murder case, a glittering political career began to unravel.

Wang’s move precipitated Bo’s political demise. Soon after news of the events began to emerge, Bo was removed from his party posts.

A court found Gu guilty last year of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in a Chongqing hotel room in 2011. A family employee, Zhang Xiaojun, was also convicted in the killing and sentenced to nine years in prison.

The following month, Wang was convicted of bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking. He received a 15-year prison sentence.

The last chapter?

Bo’s trial is seen as a potentially concluding chapter in the scandal.

Authorities haven’t said how long it will last. But with only part of the charges reportedly addressed in the first day, it appears it could go on for longer than the two days some observers had predicted.

Under the bribery indictment, prosecutors accuse Bo of using his political posts to secure influence for others. They say that between 2000 and 2012, Bo, Gu and their son, Bo Guagua, received about 22 million renminbi ($3.6 million) in bribes from Tang and Xu, the Dalian businessmen.

The embezzlement charge alleges that Bo and Gu transferred 5 million renminbi of public money from a construction project in Dalian to a private account through a law firm in Beijing.

And the abuse of power indictment relates to Bo’s actions after he was informed about his wife’s involvement in the killing of Heywood and Wang’s attempted defection to the United States.

By Jethro Mullen. David McKenzie and Steven Jiang

CNN’s David McKenzie and Steven Jiang reported from Jinan. Jethro Mullen wrote from Hong Kong. K.J. Kwon and Jaime A. FlorCruz in Beijing contributed to this report.

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