Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Not since Casablanca’s Captain Renault pronounced himself shocked to discover gambling going on in Rick’s Café Americain has anyone been as unconvincing a voice of justice as Bo Xilai this week in Jinan, with his protests about coerced confessions, unreliable testimony and rigging of trials by those with power.

Bo has at least not exaggerated the unpleasantness of his own treatment, describing his pre-trial confession to accepting massive amounts of money from Dalian businessman Xu Ming as having been obtained through “unjust pressure and coaxing.” I do not condone even this degree of pressure on any defendant, but unless it is the understatement of all time, it bears little relation to the treatment meted out to alleged figures of organized crime in Chongqing under Bo’s famous clean-up in 2009-11.

Lawyer Li Zhuang was jailed for 30 months and barred from practising law after he tried to withdraw in court a confession his client said had been obtained through torture, a claim which gains credibility from all the other evidence which has emerged of the use of torture in Bo’s and police chief Wang Lijun’s crackdown. Once Bo’s trial is concluded, Li may yet succeed in having his conviction and disbarment overturned, but it will be much too late for another prominent Chongqing torture victim, Fan Qihang, whom months of pre-trial torture drove to attempt suicide by running head-first into a wall and biting through his own tongue. It is said that one of the police officers present couldn’t bear to witness what was being done to Fan and begged for reassignment to other duties.

Fan was executed in September 2010, despite video testimony in which he described his ordeal being released by his lawyer, Zhu Mingyong. Zhu subsequently fled Beijing to avoid being arrested and imprisoned like Li Zhuang; the efforts of a dedicated Chongqing police team to discredit and frame him even included an attempt to persuade the wretched Fan to testify that his lawyer had fabricated his torture claims (and presumably had cut his tongue almost in half to lend verisimilitude).

The worsening victimization of Chinese defence lawyers who are prepared to take on unpopular defendants (Bo’s targets in Chongqing, or Falun Gong practitioners and other members of unregistered religious groups) has been evident for some years. The appalling treatment of Gao Zhisheng is a notorious case, and the 2013 US Commission on International Religious Freedom Report has revealed that videos of his torture are being used to intimidate other lawyers, some of whom have themselves been tortured.

Fan Qihang’s execution happened only three months after new regulations had been issued on the exclusion of evidence obtained through torture in China’s trials, and following amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law, further rules came into effect in January this year which “revised” and “reiterated” the ban. Whether this ban will have any more effect than previous ones is yet to be seen, but the record hardly justifies optimism.

Bo’s son, Bo Guagua, has this week spoken of his mother, already convicted of murder, and his father on trial, referring to “the adversity they each endure in solitude”. Accounts earlier this year of the torture suffered by women in the Masanjia Re-education through Labour (RETL) camp in northeast China included descriptions of prisoners being held in solitary confinement for long periods in tiny spaces so poorly ventilated that they struggled to breathe, so that word “solitude” has fearful overtones in the context of Chinese justice. But there is also the horror of never being alone for one second, as depicted by Ai Weiwei in his Venice Biennale installation based on his 81 days of illegal detention in 2011. In relative terms, Bo Guagua probably has much less cause to worry about the living conditions of either of his parents.

Bo Xilai’s trial has been reported as surprisingly lively, and the Jinan People’s Intermediate Court has been praised for its not-quite-live microblog coverage, although some remember that the trial of the Gang of Four back in 1980 was actually televised live, something today’s Chinese leaders lack the courage to do. But shows belong on television, and Bo’s trial in legal terms is mainly notable for how such a privileged defendant is able to speak in his own defence, contest the evidence of witnesses, and withdraw a confession he says was coerced; the overwhelming majority of accused persons in China would risk even worse consequences than conviction if they dared to try this, and so would their lawyers.

Let’s not forget that if the murder of Neil Heywood had not come to light, Bo’s Chongqing torture spree might have succeeded in propelling him into the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, and if it had, he would have continued to uphold and perpetuate a system of justice in China in which the rights of the accused, limited as they are, are violated by police, prosecutors, judges, and government officials daily and on a massive scale.

Bo says he didn’t take certain bribes, and he knows his accusers can’t ask him to show legitimate sources for his family’s wealth, as if they did, China’s netizens would hurl the question back at them. That does not make him innocent, nor does it make him, when convicted, a victim of miscarriage of justice.

Jackie Sheehan is Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. She will  join University College Cork as Professor and Head of Asian Studies later this month.

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