As Gu Kailai passed the day in a Hefei detention center ahead of the most anticipated Chinese trial in decades, local sightseers flocked to Lord Bao temple, a shrine dedicated to an 11th-century official who symbolizes justice in China.
Until the Communist party decided to try Ms Gu’s murder case in the capital of Anhui province, the city was better known for Bao Zheng who, legend says, helped people defend their rights against corrupt officials.
But the trial of Ms Gu might have been a challenge even for Lord Bao. While some people believe the wife of purged Chinese politician Bo Xilai is a pawn in an internal party struggle, others believe justice is being done.
Lu Ying, a woman who had brought her daughter to burn incense for Lord Bao, said it was a good thing a member of the privileged political class was being tried.
“Nobody is above the law,” she said, echoing official propaganda.
Ms Gu stands accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a British man who had advised her family on business matters. Chinese state media have said that an investigation found that she murdered Heywood out of fear that he threatened the personal safety of her son, after a dispute over “economic interests”.
The charges are part of a much bigger drama that has shaken the foundations of Chinese politics. Her arrest came months after Mr. Heywood died, and only when her husband was detained by the party’s internal investigators for “severe discipline violations”’ – a charge that often stands for corruption.
The development followed a forceful campaign by Mr. Bo, a populist politician who had resurrected Maoist methods, for a seat in the next politburo standing committee, which will be chosen in the party’s generational leadership transition later this year.
Mr. Bo and his wife have not been seen since their arrest. But, on Wednesday, legal officials told the Financial Times that Ms Gu had been held for months in the Hefei detention center. The sprawling complex of low-rise concrete buildings, which is overlooked by two watchtowers and fenced in with barbed wire, lies in a squalid area in the eastern part of the city, surrounded by abandoned factories and truck depots.
On Thursday morning, a court van will transport Ms Gu to the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court where her trial will start at 8.30am. The courthouse, a huge granite block with a stone carving of the Chinese character for “law” that faces visitors in the marble-clad lobby, was built five years ago as part of a new government complex for the fast-expanding city of six million people.
“We have chosen courtroom number one, our largest courtroom,” said Mr. Liang, a judge from the court’s press office who would only give his surname.
Mr. Liang said three judges would preside over the trial, which he said was expected to last for only two days. It is not clear when a verdict will be announced.
One lawyer with knowledge of the case said witnesses were unlikely to be heard, but that testimony had been collected in advance by the prosecution. Bo Guagua, Ms Gu’s son, who is thought to be in America, told CNN by email that he had submitted a statement to the court as he “was cited as a motivating factor for the crimes” his mother is alleged to have committed.
While proceedings in two other courtrooms could be observed through the open doors on Wednesday morning, the two large wooden doors at courtroom one were closed. Mr. Liang said the windowless room was designed with Chinese-style ornaments on the walls and seats about 400 people.
“Our criminal trial courtrooms are designed to breathe the spirit of Lord Bao,” he added.
Hefei legal officials pride themselves in the city’s judicial heritage and say its criminal justice system is exceptionally well-developed.
“In criminal trials here, judges take the defense's arguments into account more frequently than elsewhere,” said Hu Jin, who has been a trial lawyer in Hefei for 18 years.
Outside the court on Wednesday, many critics said the trial would be theatre. Some critics point out that Ms Gu and Mr. Bo have not been charged with corruption – suspicions of which have been raised partly because the couple’s son attended the expensive universities of Oxford and Harvard.
But analysts say prosecuting the couple for corruption could open the door to public outrage over widespread corruption elsewhere in the political leadership.
“There are too many contradictions in this case,” said one microbiology professor. “If someone with such good connections like Gu Kailai can be declared a scapegoat like this, what will the judicial system do to an ordinary Chinese citizen?”
Ms Gu even found supporters in a group of Maoists who had gathered outside the courthouse to protest at what they suggested was a campaign against Mr. Bo.
“The capitalist-roaders have taken over this country and Bo Xilai was going to do something against that,” said Mao Jianhui, a retired Nanjing university teacher, referring to the term used during the Cultural Revolution for people categorized as enemies of communism. “This trial is just part of a conspiracy between the CIA and the party leadership to finish off the Left.”