Ex-China Railway Minister admits guilt at graft trial

BEIJING, China – The man who once ran China’s powerful railways ministry wept as he admitted his guilt and sought leniency at his trial on corruption charges, one of the country’s highest-level graft cases in years.

Liu Zhijun, 60, who oversaw the ministry’s high-profile bullet train development, has been accused of taking massive bribes and steering lucrative projects to associates. The case is seen as an indicator of how top-level officials might fare in an anti-corruption campaign that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed will target both high and low officials.

The case presents a thorny challenge to the Chinese government, which wants to appear tough on graft but is mindful of how the prosecution of a massive case like Liu’s could further hurt public confidence in the railways system. Such a case raises questions of whether the corruption affected the construction, management and operation of the railways that serve millions of Chinese every day.

Liu’s defence attorney, Qian Lieyang, said after Sunday’s trial that his client admitted guilt and expressed remorse during the proceedings, weeping as he read out a personal statement. Qian also said he asked the court to consider Liu’s contributions in spearheading the much-admired high-speed train system when drawing up the sentence.

Even prosecutors asked the court for lenience on Liu’s behalf, saying that he showed a positive attitude during investigations and confessed to many wrongdoings on his own accord, Qian told reporters.

Qian’s account of the prosecution’s approach suggests that authorities were trying to lay the legal groundwork for delivering a sentence that would be appear tough on corruption, while not being too severe on a person whose name is so closely tied with the high-speed railways — a source of national pride.

“When the court makes a decision on sentencing, I hope it will consider his contributions to the country,” Qian said.

Liu went on trial at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court amid relatively tight security. Police cars were parked around the court’s perimeter and officers stood on the sidewalk to prevent onlookers from getting close to the entrance or to a group of reporters gathered outside. Court officials and police told foreign journalists to leave the premises.

The trial concluded by midday Sunday. The official Xinhua News Agency reported that prosecutors accuse Liu of using his position of influence to help about 11 business associates win promotions and project contracts and accepted 64.6 million Chinese yuan ($10.5 million) in unspecified bribes between 1986 and 2011.

“Liu’s malpractice led to huge losses of public assets and damage to the interests of the state and people,” the indictment said, according to Xinhua.

State broadcaster China Central Television showed Liu, a thin, bespectacled man with a comb-over, being escorted into a courtroom and standing during part of the procedure, his face expressionless.

Qian said he had argued for the severity of the charges to be reduced on the basis of Liu’s remorseful attitude, his contributions to national development and questions over whether part of the bribery charges actually amounted to bribery by legal definition,

The court said it would announce a verdict at a later, unspecified date.

Liu was ousted in February 2011 for unspecified discipline violations. Months later, a high-speed train crash killed 40 people near the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou.

Earlier this year, Beijing dismantled the Ministry of Railways and separated its regulatory and commercial arms in a bid to reduce bureaucracy and boost efficiency.