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HEFEI, China (Reuters) - The woman at the heart of China's most politically sensitive trial in three decades is set to be defended on a murder charge by a state-appointed lawyer with meager experience in criminal cases, leaving little doubt she will be convicted.
Gu Kailai, wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, is to go on trial on Thursday for the murder last year of an expatriate British businessman in a case many Chinese see as a campaign to ruin Bo, an ambitious populist who made powerful enemies.
The state has decided who will represent Gu, and the decision underlines doubts she will receive a fair trial. It also prompted Gu's 90-year-old mother, Fan Xiucheng, to recently complain to the Justice Ministry, according to a source close to the family.
"The answer (from the ministry) was that the legal process did not have to be fully carried out in this case and that Fan should stop pestering them," the source said.
The trial of Gu, herself a career lawyer and glamorous daughter of the ruling Communist Party aristocracy, is the most sensational since the conviction of the Gang of Four more than 30 years ago for crimes during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
But she has been denied the use of her family lawyer and, despite British calls for the case to be handled fairly and to unearth the truth around businessman Neil Heywood's death, her defence has instead been entrusted to two provincial lawyers.
The two lawyers, Jiang Min and Zhou Yuhao, could not be reached for comment but a search of public information shows the more senior attorney, Jiang, is a specialist in financial cases and that neither has any obvious connection to the Bo family.
A newspaper profile of Jiang from 2005, which was posted on Jiang's own website, quoted him as saying that he was "an expert in financial law, who rarely conducts criminal defenses", although he has represented some officials accused of corruption in the more than 20 years he has been practicing law.
Little is known of Gu's other lawyer, Zhou, except that he, like Jiang, is from Anhui province in eastern China. Gu will stand trial in the provincial capital, Hefei, a bustling city more than 1,000 km (650 miles) east of the scene of the alleged crime - Chongqing, the vast municipality formerly ruled by Bo.
Gu and her co-accused, a family aide, face the death penalty if convicted of poisoning Heywood, a former family friend, last November in a dispute that has not been spelt out in the very little official information released on the case.
But many legal experts expect Gu will be convicted but only sentenced to a lengthy jail term.
Police sources initially claimed Gu had poisoned Heywood in a dispute over an illicit financial transaction she had wanted him to help her complete, and they portrayed Gu as a greedy wife who was translating her husband's connections into dollars.
But when Gu was formally indicted, the official allegation instead hinted at a personal motive, saying Heywood had made unspecified threats against her son Bo Guagua - a factor that could count as a mitigating circumstance and help Gu avoid execution.
The younger Bo, who is believed to be still in the United States after graduating from Harvard this summer, told CNN in an e-mail that he had submitted a witness statement to the court.
"I hope that my mother will have the opportunity to review them," he added. "I have faith that facts will speak for themselves." CNN said he did not elaborate.
The trial and sentencing of both Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are widely expected to be completed within a few weeks at most. The case is seen as a prelude to a possible criminal prosecution of Bo, who is being detained for violating party discipline - an accusation that covers corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds.
The move against Bo, who was a favorite of party leftists by promoting himself as a friend of the poor and an enemy of corruption, was sacked as Chongqing party chief in March after his police chief, Wang Lijun, identified Gu as a suspect in Heywood's death last November.
Bo was formerly considered a contender for the inner sanctum of power - the party's Politburo Standing Committee - in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that is currently underway. The new leadership is expected to be unveiled in October.
Gu's trial is set to open on Thursday morning at the Hefei Intermediate People's Court, a 12-storey building of granite and glass at the edge of a government district in a fast-developing suburb of Hefei, a bustling city of more than 7 million people.
On Wednesday night, there was no security around the courthouse and no public notices visible inside. A clutch of foreign journalists milling outside the building was the only sign that a major event in Chinese politics was about to unfold.
The trial is expected to be closed. Although authorities may describe it as open to the public on Thursday, a source familiar with the arrangements said all available courtroom seats were being allocated to local police and other officials.
British diplomats will be inside the courtroom but have indicated they will not be speaking to the media.
It was not clear if Gu's elderly mother will be allowed to attend the trial, the family source said, and it was also unclear if any members of Heywood's family will be there.
"This is a dangerous move," the Gu family source said, referring to the decision to deny Gu the right to her own lawyer and to possibly block Fan from attending her daughter's trial.
"Regardless of what crime Gu Kailai committed, the trial should be transparent."
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan