By Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's ruling Communist Party accused disgraced politician Bo Xilai of abusing power, taking huge bribes and other crimes on Friday, sealing the fate of a controversial leader whose fall shook a leadership handover due at a congress from November 8.
The once high-flying Bo now faces a criminal investigation that stemmed from a murder scandal, and will almost certainly be jailed. With the Communist Party congress about six weeks away, further steps in the case could come before then, helping pave the way for a transition of power, experts said.
"Bo Xilai's actions created grave repercussions and did massive harm to the reputation of the party and state, producing an extremely malign effect at home and abroad," the official statement from a party leaders' meeting said, according to a report by the official Xinhua news agency.
Bo's wife Gu Kailai and his former police chief Wang Lijun have already been jailed over the scandal stemming from the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, where Bo was Communist Party chief.
The official statement carried by Xinhua said that in the murder scandal, Bo "abused his powers of office, committed serious errors and bears a major responsibility".
That charge appears to reflect accusations from Wang's trial that suggested Bo tried to stymie the murder investigation.
Reports that Bo, the "princeling" son of a revolutionary leader, could escape with a light punishment have now been dealt a fatal blow, and accusations of womanizing could further tarnish his reputation in the eyes of Chinese people.
But the few weeks left before the congress will probably not allow time for a trial, said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University who has closely followed Bo's downfall.
"I think it's quite certain that he won't be able to escape punishment under the criminal law, but the timing makes it unlikely that will happen before the congress," said He.
"I'd guess that he'll get a jail sentence of 20 years or longer. The death penalty is unlikely, although the bribery charges could in theory allow it, if the amount is as huge as they say."
At the congress, Chinese President Hu Jintao will step down as party chief, almost certainly making way for Vice President Xi Jinping to emerge as top leader. Xi is then almost sure to be appointed state president at the annual parliament session, likely in March next year.
WARNING TO HEED EXAMPLE
Bo, 63, has been expelled from the party as well as the elite decision-making Politburo and Central Committee "in view of his errors and culpability in the Wang Lijun incident and the intentional homicide case involving Bogu Kailai", said the party announcement.
Bogu is his wife's official but rarely used surname.
Bo's "grave violations of party discipline" extended back to his time as an official in Dalian city and Liaoning province in northeast China, and as minister of commerce, said the statement from the Politburo.
"Party organizations at all levels must use the case of Bo Xilai's grave disciplinary violations as a negative example," it said.
Bo's son, Bo Guagua, who was a friend of the murdered Heywood, has remained largely silent throughout the fall of his parents. He appears to be still in the United States, after finishing graduate studies at Harvard University.
Since Bo Xilai was ousted in March, he has not been seen in public and has not been allowed to answer the accusations against him. At a news conference days before his removal, Bo rejected as "filth" and "nonsense" the then unspecified allegations against him and his family.
At the same time as announcing the slate of accusations against Bo, the party set the November 8 date for the congress that will unveil the country's new central leadership line-up. Eight is considered a lucky number in China.
The twin announcements will "significantly reduce perceived political and economic risks" and "help end policy paralysis," Ting Lu, China economist Bank of America/Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong said in an emailed research note.
"If anything, this should make markets and the general public somewhat assured that this is not really being delayed too far," Damien Ma, an analyst for the Eurasia Group who follows Chinese politics, said of the November 8 congress date.
LEFTIST SYMPATHISERS CRY FOUL
Bo, 63, was widely seen as pursuing a powerful spot in the new political line-up before his career unraveled after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate for more than 24 hours in February and alleged that Bo's wife Gu had poisoned Heywood to death.
After his appointment as party chief of Chongqing in 2007, Bo, a former commerce minister, turned it into a showcase of revolution-inspired "red" culture and his policies for egalitarian, state-led growth. He also won national attention with a crackdown on organized crime.
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.
His likely trial could still stir that ideological contention. China's party-run courts rarely find in favor of defendants, especially in politically-sensitive cases.
After state television announced the charges against Bo, some leftist sympathizers insisted that he was the innocent victim of a political plot.
"I just still don't believe that Bo has so many problems with corruption," Han Deqiang, a leftist Beijing academic who has supported Bo, told Reuters. "We have to wait and see what else comes out. But I don't think we've been given the truth."
In March, Bo was sacked as Chongqing party boss, and in April he was suspended from the party's Politburo, a powerful decision-making council with two dozen active members.
The latest party statement also said Bo "had or maintained improper sexual relations with multiple women". It added that the investigation discovered clues of other, unspecified crimes.
"We'll have to wait and see what charges are accepted by the prosecutors in any indictment," said Li Zhuang, a Beijing lawyer who was jailed by Bo after raising allegations that Chongqing's anti-crime gang policies involved torture and other unchecked abuses. "The charges could change."
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Sally Huang in Beijing, and John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)