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In Chinese politician’s trial, specter of a murder looms

Bo Xilai was a member of the Politburo. His trial this week poses challenges for the Communist Party leadership.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2012

Bo Xilai was a member of the Politburo. His trial this week poses challenges for the Communist Party leadership.

HONG KONG — Bo Xilai, an ambitious and divisive Chinese politician whose downfall shook the Communist Party elite, will stand trial Thursday on charges of corruption, taking bribes, and abusing power, state-run news media announced Sunday.

The brief report from the Xinhua news agency said Bo would be tried in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in eastern China. But the report gave no other details about the lurid allegations of corruption and a murder that toppled him and exposed bitter contention within the usually secretive Communist Party leadership.

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The announcement said the trial would start Thursday morning but did not say how long it would last.

Bo, 64, fell from power last year, upsetting preparations for a leadership transition and setting off reverberations still felt in Chinese politics. Accusations of skulduggery and graft around him and his family have drawn intense attention from Chinese people, and his trial is considered a test of how harshly and candidly the Communist Party elite deals with one of its own.

“Politics will determine how Bo Xilai is tried,” said Chen Ziming, a commentator in Beijing who closely follows Communist Party affairs. “How much evidence they present will depend on how severely they want to punish him, not vice versa.”

China’s courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and there is little doubt that Bo will be found guilty after a carefully choreographed trial. His defense lawyer was appointed by the court. But experts have offered opposing views about the likely punishment. A death penalty appears very unlikely, but a prison sentence of 15 years or longer is almost certain, Chen said.

The political passions evoked by Bo have made his case a difficult one for the party leadership. If the evidence offered is flimsy or relatively slight, his supporters may accuse leaders of pursuing a political vendetta. But if the evidence is extensive and severe, others will ask why Bo was allowed to stay in power for so long and even position himself for possible promotion into the central leadership.

An urbane former minister of commerce with a liking for sleek suits and media attention, Bo was appointed the Communist Party secretary of Chong-qing, a relatively poor municipality in southwest China, in 2007.

He turned Chongqing into a showcase for a blend of welfare programs, reverent propaganda for the revolutionary past, and harsh measures against those suspected of being members of organized crime cartels.

Bo was a member of the Politburo, an elite council with 25 members, and his supporters hoped that he would win a place in the Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost circle of party power.

But his critics claim that Bo’s populist facade hid abuses of power and corrupt self-enrichment by him and his family.

Bo fell abruptly from power in March last year, more than a month after the former police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to a US consulate. Wang disclosed accusations that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was involved in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who knew the Bo family. And he accused Bo of trying to silence concerns about the case.

Gu was found guilty of fatally poisoning Heywood in a hotel in Chongqing. She received a death sentence with a reprieve, meaning the sentence is likely to be reduced to a long prison term. Bo was expelled from the Communist Party.

“We still don’t know what specific allegations lie behind the three charges against Bo Xilai,” said Li Zhuang, a lawyer in Beijing who became one of Bo’s fiercest critics after Li was jailed in Chongqing. Li had worked as a lawyer for a Chongqing businessman accused of running a criminal network.

“He could be accused of abusing power by trying to conceal or failing to report the Heywood murder,” Li said. “From what I’ve heard, the sums involved in the corruption case are not as much as in some other corruption cases, but I think Bo Xilai’s damage to rule of law, private enterprise, and justice was much worse than those other cases.”

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