Former Politburo member Bo Xilai on Thursday mounted a defiant defence and denied prosecutors’ claims that he had accepted more than 20 million yuan (Rs. 20 crore) in bribes, as his trial opened in north-eastern China amid doubts about the independence of the judicial process.

Mr. Bo, who was sacked in 2012, countered accusations from prosecutors that he had taken bribes from the businessmen Xu Ming and Tang Xiaolin and suggested that he had been framed, as he put up a stronger than expected defence of his record on the first day of the eagerly anticipated trial.

In surprisingly strong language, Mr. Bo expressed his displeasure that the court was relying on the testimony of “a corrupt man and a fraudster”. He also discounted the key written testimony provided by his wife Gu Kailai as “comical” and “very laughable”.

The former Chongqing Party Secretary and once leading party “princeling” was dismissed on charges of corruption and abuse of power after he was accused of covering up the murder of British family associate Neil Heywood, who was poisoned by Ms. Gu.

Legal experts and political analysts remained divided on whether Mr. Bo’s stout defence was a breaking from the script, or on the other hand merely part of what they have alleged to be an elaborate “show trial” whose outcome has been determined by internal Communist Party deliberations.

That the charges listed relatively small amounts of money while ignoring other aspects of Mr. Bo’s controversial political legacy, such as a popular but controversial anti-corruption campaign he launched in Chongqing, disappointed some observers. Mr. Bo’s strong-arm politics won praise and saw dozens of mafia groups disbanded, but also locked up lawyers and alarmed legal scholars.

“The rule of law in Chongqing was gravely damaged under his rule. Avoiding investigation in such actions is evading the crucial point. The trial in Jinan should remove the big stone laid on the unjust convictions,” said He Weifang, a leading Chinese legal scholar at Peking University.

While Mr. He declined to further discuss the on-going trial, which may concluded on Friday, considering its sensitivity, he pointed The Hindu to his comments to be published on his blog, where he criticised the trial’s lack of openness to the media. “The bottom line of judicial openness,” he wrote, “is that the media should have the freedom of the press and there should be no unified reporting by repeating the same from the State-controlled media”.

The only source of information from the trial was the selected updates from the court in Jinan, in north-eastern Shandong, which were posted on its Twitter-like microblog account. Underscoring the wide interest in Mr. Bo’s case, the blog attracted as many as 3.1 lakh followers, most of whom started following the proceedings on Thursday.

The trial opened on Thursday morning amid tight security. The main charge laid against Mr. Bo was accepting bribes amounting to more than 20 million Yuan (Rs. 20 crore) from Xu Ming, who headed the giant Dalian Shide group.

Prosecutors alleged some of the bribes were routed through Mr. Bo’s wife and son. Mr. Xu, who was detained by authorities last year, was called as a witness. He said he had paid $ 3.23 million to Ms. Gu to help her purchase a villa in France. He said had also paid 300,000 yuan (Rs. 30 lakh) to settle credit card bills of Mr. Bo’s son, Guagua, who is now studying in the United States.

Mr. Bo denied the charges. He also pointed out discrepancies in the testimonies of Mr. Xu and Ms. Gu, who had admitted to taking large sums of money from a shared safe in their home in her written testimony.

Most surprisingly, Mr. Bo said he had faced “unjust” and “mental pressure” from Party investigators who had forced him to confess to the charges. “I had gone against my heart and admitted [the charges] while the Central Disciplinary Commission investigated me, and said I was willing to accept legal responsibilities,” he said.

Mr. Bo’s defiance won some praise from bloggers, but for other legal observers, it was more likely only part of an elaborately staged event aimed at bestowing some credibility to the legal process amid widespread doubts.

“He knows exactly what to say and what not to say,” Zhang Sizhi, who was the lawyer for Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, during the famous 1980 “Gang of Four” trial, told Reuters.

“It seems,” he said, “some sort of understanding was reached ahead of time.”

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