BEIJING The family of Gu Kailai, the Chinese leader's wife suspected of murdering a British man and igniting a political firestorm, has hired a Beijing lawyer experienced in defending officials accused of corruption to work for her, two sources have said.
The sources, who have ties to Gu's ousted husband, Bo Xilai, said her family hired Shen Zhigeng, a partner in the Beijing Zong Heng Law Firm, whose clients have included a former vice minister of public security jailed for taking bribes.
Both sources requested anonymity, citing the risk of repercussions for talking about the case at the heart of the worst scandal to hit China's ruling Communist Party in decades.
When Reuters called Shen on Sunday, he would neither confirm nor deny he was working for Gu or her family.
"It's still not for certain. I still haven't met with her yet," Shen said, when asked if he was Gu's attorney.
"The judicial (authorities) don't allow comment on these things," he added, when pressed to explain his possible role. "Now the judicial bureau doesn't allow us to have contact with the media," he said.
Chinese law gives the police wide power to deny suspects access to lawyers, especially before they have been formally charged or indicted. That can make it difficult for lawyers to secure approval from suspects to serve as their attorneys.
If Gu goes on trial and Shen acts as her attorney, they will be thrust into the heart of one of the most closely watched and contentious crime cases for years in China, where courts are run by the Communist Party and judges rarely find in favor of defendants, especially in politically sensitive cases.
In March, Bo was dismissed as Communist Party chief of Chongqing, a province-level municipality in southwest China that he used to promote policies that mixed left-leaning populism with courting multinational investment.
Bo could also face criminal charges related to the scandal, but Communist Party officials must first complete their inquiry and decide whether to hand his case to police and prosecutors.
Gu is suspected of murdering a British businessman, Neil Heywood, in November, and his family and British diplomats could seek access to any proceedings.
In April, Bo was suspended from the elite Central Committee and its Politburo, effectively ending his career. Until the scandal, Bo had widely been seen as pressing for a top post in China's next leadership, which will be settled this year.
The government said evidence indicated Heywood was murdered and Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun, an aide in Bo's household, were "highly suspected." Gu and Heywood were in dispute over unspecified "economic interests," said the government.
Bo, 62, and Gu, in her early fifties, have disappeared from public view since his removal as chief of Chongqing, and have had no chance to respond publicly to the allegations about them.
The sensitive territory where commerce and power meet appears to be Shen's specialty. He has acted as the lawyer for senior officials accused of bribe-taking and other economic crimes. They include a former vice minister for public security, Li Jizhou, who was jailed in 2001 for taking bribes in the massive Yuanhua smuggling scandal.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)