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Court Cases

Bo Xilai case: showdown or show trial?

Disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai has launched a spirited defense at his corruption trial, fiercely denying bribery charges. China law expert Margaret Lewis examines how this may impact the outcome of the proceedings.

Bo has mounted an unexpectedly feisty defense, denying he took $3.5 million USD in bribes from two businessmen and cross-examining one of them with a lawyer's precision. The former Communist party secretary of Chongqing, China's largest city, even compared one of the prosecution's witnesses, businessman Tang Xiaolin, to a "mad dog" who appeared to have "sold his soul." The 64-year-old Bo is charged with bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.

In an unusual step authorities have also taken the trial online, with the Jinan Intermediate People's Court periodically providing Internet updates and details on testimony, photos and even an audio clip from a key witness. Followers of the postings on the social media website Sina Weibo are said to have jumped from 70,000 to more than 300,000 in one day. In a DW interview China law expert Margaret Lewis explains, however, that the "message" from the courtroom is still being controlled by the government.

DW: Some experts consider this to be one of China's most political trials in decades, arguing that the outcome of the legal proceedings may already have been decided. What impact could Bo's robust defense of have on the outcome of the trial?

Margaret Lewis: The most immediate impact of Bo's defense is that the trial is lasting longer than initially projected. The proceedings were expected to take only a day or two, if Bo had not contested at least some of the charges. Instead, the trial is heading into its third day.

Margaret Lewis: Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey. (Copyright: Seton Hall Law School)

Lewis says Chinese leaders will have a direct say in the outcome of the trial

The lively defense of the former Politburo member also means that more information is being aired in court than if he had simply admitted to the charges. In short, the trial is looking more like what an adversarial criminal trial is expected to look like.

There is a general policy in China of "leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist." It is difficult to say whether Bo's passionate defense will lead to greater severity or, in contrast, the party might allow for a somewhat lighter sentence so that the public feels that the defense was meaningful. Regardless, it is clear that the judges sitting in the courtroom are not going to decide the sentence: the leadership will no doubt have a direct say in the outcome.

How is the current trial different from other high-profile corruption cases in China?

Bo has always been known to be charismatic politician and, having been completely out of public view for over a year, the trial is his chance to at least partially air his side of the story. However, I doubt his spirited defense caught the Chinese leadership totally off guard. What is interesting is the level of transparency in letting the public see that Bo is vigorously contesting the charges. It is very uncommon to see witnesses appear in court, but Bo had the opportunity to cross-examine a key prosecution witness, the businessman Xu Ming.

The newly revised Criminal Procedure Law places greater evidence on live testimony as compared with the more common approach in China of using written statements. I remain skeptical whether the information gained by the cross-examination will change the outcome of the case, but I think it is wonderful that the Chinese people are seeing assertive questioning of witnesses.

Perhaps this experience will give greater momentum for witnesses to appear live in other trials. I also find it notable that Bo himself appears to be doing much of the questioning instead of his lawyers. There has been considerable speculation regarding whether Bo supports the choice of defense lawyers or, instead, whether the leadership essentially thrust its choice of lawyers upon him.

Despite the political sensitivity of the case, the court has updated its Sina Weibo microblog steadily throughout the trial. Is the Chinese judicial system becoming more open?

The government's use of social media, particularly "live" microblogging of the proceedings is unprecedented. Other criminal cases in recent memory involving high-ranking officials -namely Chen Liangyu, former party secretary of Shanghai, and Chen Xitong, former party secretary of Beijing - were carried out completely behind closed doors.

Unlike those cases, Bo is at least being given a public platform to proclaim his innocence and question the state's evidence against him. At the same time, no foreign journalists have been allowed to sit in the trial itself and we do not know how much of the trial is being redacted from the government's coverage. The message from the courtroom is still being controlled by the government. For example, if Bo took this opportunity to point fingers directly at other top leaders and actually give names, I would be absolutely shocked if that information made it into the transcript released for public view.

Is there any indication of where the trial might be heading?

Bo's fate will certainly include a guilty verdict on some if not all of the charges against him. Even in a case that is not as politically charged as this, China's conviction rate is approximately 99 percent. The party would not have transferred his case from the party disciplinary process to the formal criminal justice system unless a guilty verdict was clear.

While a guilty verdict is not in doubt, the sentence he will receive is less clear. The death penalty is theoretically possible for Bo's alleged crimes but, at most, it is expected that the most serious punishment he will receive is a reprieved death sentence, as did his wife Gu Kailai. Under this punishment, so long as the convict is good for two years, the death sentence is commuted to a long prison term. It would be shocking if Bo was actually executed. Bo might also receive a sentence to a set number of years. At a minimum, I expect that Bo will spend at least several years behind bars.

What conclusions can be drawn so far from the trial?

Disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai speaks during a court hearing in Jinan, Shandong province August 22, 2013 in this still image taken from video. (Photo: Reuters)

Lewis explains Bo Xilai is being given a public platform to proclaim his innocence

What I will be interested to see is whether this trial stands as an anomaly or, instead, the government starts to take a harder and more public stand against corruption, even among top leaders. To date, the failure of the government to use criminal law aggressively against its own members is not due to a lack of legal tools by which to do so.

Perhaps Bo's trial will be a turning point and we will see a more robust use of criminal law against corrupt officials. More likely, however, we will see occasional cases, especially when social media shines a spotlight on egregiously corrupt behavior, without a sustained, wide-scale assault against corruption.

Margaret Lewis is an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, USA. She focuses on China's legal system with an emphasis on criminal justice.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez