Heywood conviction unsafe, warns top Chinese forensic scientist
The wife of ousted leader Bo Xilai was convicted and given a suspended death sentence last month over the death of the 41-year-old Briton in Chongqing last year.
But Wang Xuemei, an official at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, wrote in a blogpost: “I feel very pained, upset and scared that our court believed the theory [Heywood] was poisoned with cyanide.”
She added that there was a “serious lack of evidence”. The post has since been deleted. Before its removal, she told the Guardian: “I don’t care how long the blog is up there. I just want to tell people I feel humiliated. I think Chinese criminal doctors are not such idiots. I have done my duty and fulfilled my historical responsibility.”
Wang has had an unusually high media profile in the past, lauded in the Chinese media as the first female forensic scientist to work for the country’s highest level prosecution body. But she told the Guardian that she had been pressing officials to move her from her position for almost a decade because she had an “empty title” with no real duties. Even so, it is extremely surprising that an official in her position would publicly question the verdict in such a politically sensitive case.
Discussions of the case have been heavily censored online and almost no coverage has appeared in Chinese media beyond reproductions of reports from state news agency Xinhua. Authorities have sought to draw a line under the biggest political scandal for years ahead of this autumn’s once-a-decade transition of power to a new generation of leaders.
Bo, a polarising figure once tipped for a major promotion, has not been seen since spring, when he was ousted as party secretary of Chongqing and officials announced he was under internal investigation by the party for disciplinary violations. It now appears increasingly likely that he, too, could face a criminal trial – albeit after the handover of power at the upcoming 18th party congress. No date for the meeting has been announced but it is expected to appear shortly.
Wang asked why none of the obvious symptoms of cyanide poisoning was cited in the accounts that emerged from Gu’s trial or that of the former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun. On Monday a Chinese court sentenced him to 15 years for covering up Heywood’s murder, accepting bribes and abuse of power.
One explanation may be that few details of the scientific evidence used to convict Gu have emerged, although an unofficial account of her trial from a person in the court said her defence team questioned the scientific evidence against her.
Her lawyers reportedly said Wang Lijun took two blood samples yet found no traces of poison, while a third sample that he took – tested only four months later – found low levels of a toxin, apparently insufficient to kill.
Chinese trials often rely heavily on testimony from the accused and state media have said Gu confessed to Heywood’s murder.
Wang Lijun’s trial is also said to have heard a recording the police chief made secretly of Gu confessing to him the day after Heywood’s death, though no details were given.
The forensic scientist also said that local counterparts who would have handled Heywood’s body would have immediately spotted its discolouration and that blood samples would have been obviously abnormal due to their bright red colour had they contained cyanide. She asked why no scientists had been held responsible for the cover-up, as police officers were.
Heywood’s death was initially blamed on excessive alcohol consumption, a claim his family accepted, and he was cremated without a full autopsy – although the trial of Wang Lijun heard that the then police chief had taken blood samples from the Briton’s heart. It also heard that Wang had called away a detective investigating the death scene and began a cover-up.
Wang Xuemei said that she believed that Gu had a motive to kill Heywood, and probably tried to poison him with something less toxic which would not have been sufficient. She suggested it was possible that he could have been suffocated by someone.
Her comments were based on the information that has already emerged publicly about the case, but highlight the doubts that some in China have about the results despite officials’ reassurances that evidence was “concrete and abundant”.
After discussing Gu’s mental health problems, including her alleged paranoia, Wang Xuemei also wrote that the 53-year-old trusted the former police chief and added: “In other words, Wang Lijun could easily have used Gu to do whatever he wanted to do.”