BEIJING (Reuters) - The trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai could begin this week, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said on Wednesday, marking the beginning of the end of China’s most sensational scandal in decades.
The trial is most likely to take place in the eastern city of Jinan, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for talking to a foreign reporter about elite politics.
Bo has been charged with accepting bribes, corruption and abuse of power, the source said.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, citing unidentified sources, said details of the charges against Bo had been read out at meetings of government officials in his former power base of Chongqing and other cities.
He has been accused of receiving more than 20 million yuan ($3.26 million) in bribes and embezzling another 5 million yuan, the newspaper said.
One of Bo’s lawyers, Li Guifang, contacted by Reuters, said it was “inconvenient to speak”. He later turned off his mobile telephone.
An official at the propaganda department of the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan said by telephone he had not received any notice about the case.
A Reuters correspondent at the court saw no signs of extra security and staff gave no indication a trial was imminent.
However, a Jinan government official with knowledge of the case, who asked not to be identified, said the city was one of several in China where courts were preparing material for a Bo trial. He did not elaborate.
Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and his former police chief, Wang Lijun, have both been jailed over China’s biggest political scandal in years, which stems from the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011.
In September last year, the government accused Bo of corruption and of bending the law to hush up the murder. It also accused him of “improper sexual relations with multiple women”, a common charge leveled against officials suspected of graft.
China’s prosecutors and courts come under Communist Party control and they are most unlikely to challenge its accusations. Formal charges have yet to be announced and the trial is likely to be conducted, at least partly, in secret.
But that would be natural if the case touches upon what China considers sensitive matters that may be considered state secrets, said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor who has followed the scandal around Bo.
“Still, this is not good for the government’s pledges of transparency,” he said, referring to the lack of any confirmation about what was happening in the case or when the trial would start.
Still, Bo is unlikely to be given the death sentence, despite the severity of the charges he is facing, Li added.
“They’ve long since ruled out executing him. He’s most likely to get life in jail.”
How Bo’s case is handled will be a test of newly installed President Xi Jinping’s steel in fighting corruption, a top priority for his government, though Bo’s initial downfall came under the rule of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Xi has appeared casual and relaxed this week in images carried on state television as he visited factories and ports in the central province of Hubei.
Bo was ousted as Communist Party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing last year after Heywood’s murder. Before that, he had been widely tipped to be promoted to the party’s elite inner core.
His downfall came after his estranged police chief, Wang, fled briefly to a U.S. consulate in the neighboring city of Chengdu in February last year and accused Bo’s wife of poisoning Heywood.
Bo, a former commerce minister, used his post as Communist Party chief of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012 to cast the sprawling, haze-covered municipality into a showcase for his mix of populist policies and bold spending plans that won support from leftists yearning for a charismatic leader.
Wang had spearheaded Bo’s controversial campaign against organized crime, a prominent plank in Bo’s barely concealed campaign to join the topmost ranks of the Communist Party.
His brash self-promotion irked some leaders. But his populist ways and crime clean-up were welcomed by many of Chongqing’s 30 million residents, as well as others who hoped that Bo could take his leftist-shaded policies nationwide.
Some leftist sympathizers have insisted Bo is the victim of a plot.
“It’s very hard to believe these accusations. Bo is a great man who knew how to get things done,” said Sima Nan, a well-known defender of Bo’s policies who makes a living appearing on television entertainment shows.
“What he did, to radically transform Chongqing from the undeveloped backwater it was, was quite amazing.”
Bo was suspended from the party’s top ranks in April 2012, when his wife Gu was named as an official suspect in the murder of Heywood, a long-time friend of the couple who also helped their son, Bo Guagua, settle into study in Britain.
In August last year, Gu, formerly a powerful lawyer, was given a suspended death sentence, which effectively means life in prison, for murdering Heywood. Wang was then jailed for 15 years over charges that indicated Bo tried to stifle a murder inquiry, in the first official linking of Bo with a criminal case.
After first helping Gu evade suspicion of poisoning Heywood, Wang hushed up evidence of the murder, according to the official account of Wang’s trial. In late January 2012, Wang confronted Bo with the allegation that Gu was suspected of killing Heywood. But Wang was “angrily rebuked and had his ears boxed”.
Since Bo was sacked, he has disappeared from public view and has not responded publicly to the accusations against him.
At a news conference days before his dismissal as Chongqing party chief, Bo scorned as nonsense unspecified accusations of misdeeds by his wife and said people were pouring “filth on my family”.
Rumors have swirled in China about Bo’s fate, but the government has given no definite word on progress in the investigation against him since late last year.
Another Hong Kong newspaper, the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao, reported in January that Bo was about to be tried in the southern city of Guiyang, which sent dozens of reporters flocking to the courthouse.
The report turned out to be untrue.
($1 = 6.1374 yuan)
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Hui Li in BEIJING, Grace Li in HONG KONG and Megha Rajagopalan in JINAN, China; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Birsel