BEIJING -- As his family tells it, Vincent Wu is an industrious Chinese-American immigrant who sold his family's suburban Los Angeles home to finance the construction of a shopping center in China he thought would allow him to retire early. To the police in Huizhou, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, Mr. Wu, 54, is a Mafia kingpin and illegal casino operator who dispatched his enemies through kidnapping, extortion and violence.
Whether an accurate depiction of Mr. Wu will emerge during a trial that begins Monday in Huizhou is anyone's guess, although the 98 percent conviction rate enjoyed by Chinese prosecutors suggests that the defendant stands a slim chance of acquittal.
"It's going to be a tough battle," one of his lawyers, Wang Shihua, said Friday as he scrambled to sort through the 8,000 pages of evidence that the police had only recently delivered to Mr. Wu's defense team. "At the very least, it's going to be a very confrontational trial."
That confrontation is likely to center on allegations that Mr. Wu was tortured into signing a confession, which is the crux of the case against him. In a deposition released by his lawyers, Mr. Wu says he was beaten while being hung upside down, deprived of food and water for several days and then given stimulants so he could not sleep. In the end, Mr. Wu says, he signed the declaration of guilt that was placed before him. "They pre-wrote everything," he told his lawyers, according to the deposition. "If I didn't sign it, they beat me."
Mr. Wu's case, human rights groups say, highlights the problems that even American citizens face in China's flawed and deeply politicized criminal justice system. Although confessions extracted through torture are technically inadmissible in court, legal experts say the police frequently rely on heavy-handed tactics to win the confessions that often form the basis of convictions. "We'd be pleasantly surprised if the judge even allows the allegations of torture to be discussed in the courtroom," said Roseann Rife, East Asia director for Amnesty International, which has been publicizing his case.
According to his family, powerful former business associates are behind Mr. Wu's prosecution. They say one of them, Lin Qiang, a former provincial public security official, is seeking to claim his assets following a Chinese court ruling that favored Mr. Wu.
During an earlier entanglement with Mr. Lin in 2002, Mr. Wu says, he was detained by the police for 11 months, but later released after prosecutors decided that there was insufficient evidence to try him. His family said a ruling in February by the Supreme People's Court vindicated Mr. Wu's claims and cemented his ownership of the disputed property, a successful fruit market in the city of Foshan.
Mr. Lin could not be reached for comment, and police officials in Huizhou declined to comment. Kenny Wu, one of Mr. Wu's sons, said in a phone interview that Mr. Lin warned his father that he would prevail in the end. " 'I control the laws in mainland China,' " Kenny Wu said Mr. Lin told his father. " 'Watch me put you back in prison like I did 10 years ago. Even President Obama and God cannot save you.' "
Mr. Wu was arrested in June; later that day, 300 police officers raided his still unfinished Lucky Star shopping center, detaining dozens of employees. After the police obtained incriminating statements against Mr. Wu, most of the detainees were released, although 33 other defendants face trial along with him.
American officials seeking to visit him in jail say they have been stymied because Mr. Wu did not use his American passport on his most recent visit to China from Hong Kong, the former British colony that enjoys some autonomy under Chinese law. Because he often drove between Guangdong and Hong Kong, where he lived before immigrating to the United States in 1993, Mr. Wu used his Hong Kong identification card to avoid the hassle of obtaining a Chinese visa for each border crossing, his family said. Under international law, the Chinese can restrict consular access to Mr. Wu based on the identification he used to enter China.
Nolan Barkhouse, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Beijing, said officials had been trying to advocate on behalf of Mr. Wu but the Chinese authorities had refused to recognize his dual citizenship."The Department of State takes obligations to assist U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad seriously and stands ready to assist them and their families within the limits of our authority, in accordance with international law," he said.
Mr. Wu's daughter, Anna Wu, dismissed the allegations that her father was a mob boss. In addition to his confession, the police say, several knives and about 70 bullets in his office are evidence of his guilt. Ms. Wu said the bullets, given to him by a friend, were considered good luck charms. "If my dad is such a big gangster, why doesn't he travel with security or drive a bulletproof car?" said Ms. Wu, 27, a clothing buyer from Los Angeles. "He's just a regular businessman who spent every last penny on his investments."
By the family's accounts, Mr. Wu was also a politically savvy businessman. He cultivated relationships with local Communist Party leaders, donated money to build basketball courts and improve Buddhist temples in his ancestral city, Huidong, and raised money among Chinese immigrants in the United States to finance college scholarships in China, they said. "He knew a decent number of government officials," said Kenny Wu, 28, who left his job as an emergency room doctor in California to devote himself to his father's case. "He probably figured they would have his back. I guess he let his guard down a little bit."
Anna Wu acknowledged that her father was not the best money manager. She said he had almost no savings in the United States, and with his Chinese bank accounts frozen, the family had to borrow money from friends and relatives to pay for his defense. After he sold their home in San Gabriel, Calif., to raise cash for his latest investment, the family moved into a rented house.
The decision to hold the trial during Christmas, she said, is designed to limit foreign media coverage. Although her father has scores of supporters in Guangdong, she said, few are willing to publicly stand up for him. "We've been trying to get people to come out to the courthouse but they are all afraid," she said. "They want to help but they have to think of themselves and their families."
Shi Da contributed research.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.