Billionaire’s Closely Watched Murder and Corruption Trial Opens in China
Judges on Monday began hearing arguments in the closely watched murder and corruption trial of Liu Han, a powerful billionaire from western China accused of running a criminal network to build his fortune.
Political analysts say the trial is an outgrowth of efforts to investigate an even more powerful target — Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member who ran China’s sprawling domestic security apparatusfor a decade, until his retirement in 2012. Mr. Zhou was also a senior figure in the oil industry and from 1999 to 2002 was party chief in Sichuan Province, where Mr. Liu lived and made his fortune through mining, real estate and other industries.
Mr. Liu’s trial is being scrutinized for connections between his activities and Mr. Zhou. Prosecutors in the court in the city of Xianning, in Hubei Province, announced Monday at least 18 criminal charges against Mr. Liu and his younger brother, Liu Wei, according to a microblog post by the court. The charges include murder, extortion, illegal detention, destruction of property, harboring criminals and illegal possession and trade of firearms. Thirty-four of Liu Han’s associates are also being tried.
The trial is taking place in Hubei Province presumably to shield it from Liu Han’s influence, which was widespread in Sichuan. The trial is expected to continue for days or even weeks. The 36 defendants are being tried in five courtrooms; all of the cases opened Monday.
The Chinese legal system is subservient to the Communist Party, and political analysts say guilty verdicts have almost certainly been predetermined in these cases.
On Monday morning, China Central Television, the state network, posted on Twitter a photograph of two tall police officers standing on either side of Mr. Liu, who was dressed in a gray jacket and dark pants, and gripping his arms. The Xianning People’s Intermediate Court put out hourly updates on its microblog.
The propaganda spectacle surrounding the trial appeared to be an attempt to convey to ordinary citizens that Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist Party, and his fellow leaders are serious about their crackdown on corruption, which party officials say is aimed at snaring both “tigers” and “flies” — that is, both high- and low-ranking targets. The dissemination of details about Mr. Liu and his gang may also be laying the foundations for whatever announcements might follow about Mr. Zhou, the biggest “tiger” to be investigated so far, and his family members.
Details of the case being built against Mr. Liu were first released publicly in February. Official news reports said Mr. Liu had amassed 40 billion renminbi, or $6.4 billion. Xinhua, the state news agency, said then that Mr. Liu ran a “mafia-style gang” that killed at least nine people and bullied villagers into giving up land that Mr. Liu later used for shadowy business purposes. Xinhua said Mr. Liu and his younger brother had confessed to the murders.
One Xinhua news report from February said an employee of one of Mr. Liu’s companies had confessed to killing a villager who led protests against one of Mr. Liu’s projects in Sichuan. In 2009, the younger brother, who was a torchbearer during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ordered the murders of three people at an open-air teahouse in his hometown, Guanghan, in Sichuan Province, Xinhua said. Liu Wei went into hiding after a suspect arrested during the investigation named him.
In March 2012, Liu Han was arrested and accused of helping his brother evade the law. An attempt by Mr. Liu to buy an Australian mining company, Sundance Resources, collapsed the next month. Earlier, in 2009, Mr. Liu’s main company, Sichuan Hanlong Group, bought a controlling stake in another Australian company, Moly Mines.
Mr. Liu was also the head of Sichuan Jinlu Group, which is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange.
Another billionaire from Sichuan, Deng Hong, was formally arrested in late 2013 and was also being held by police officers in Xianning, according to a Beijing News report that was carried by Xinhua. Mr. Deng was close to Li Chuncheng, the deputy party chief of Sichuan, who had a quick rise through the party ranks while Mr. Zhou was leading Sichuan. Mr. Li was detained in December 2012 and was being investigated by the party’s anticorruption commission.
The party announced Mr. Li’s detention just weeks after Mr. Zhou retired from what was then the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, which makes the top policy decisions in China.