Is China's scandal-tainted Bo headed to trial?

AP News
Posted: Sep 20, 2012 11:05 PM
Is China's scandal-tainted Bo headed to trial?

BEIJING (AP) — A fallen star in Chinese politics appears headed to trial after he was implicated by the government this week as an accessory to the murder of a British businessman.

The downfall of Bo Xilai has scandalized China's political establishment for seven months. His wife was convicted of murder; his former right-hand man accused of taking bribes, abusing power and trying to defect to the United States, among other crimes.

Bo himself was sacked as party boss of the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing in March and stripped of his position among the Communist Party elite. But the question remained: Will Bo simply get a slap on the wrist from the party's disciplinary body, or will he too face criminal charges?

This week's revelation, that Bo was aware of his wife's role in the poisoning death of Briton Neil Heywood and did nothing about it, sends the clearest signal yet that it will be the latter.

"All the facts and evidence are ultimately turning against Bo," said He Weifang, a law professor at prestigious Peking University, "and the time for his indictment is coming closer."

A lengthy report released Wednesday by the official Xinhua news agency lays out the specific accusations against Bo for the first time. The report includes testimony from this week's trial of Wang Lijun, former chief of the Chongqing police and a longtime Bo confidante. Wang's two-day trial ended Tuesday and a verdict is to be announced on Monday.

First Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, fed poison to Heywood, a former business associate whom she felt had turned on her family and was threatening her son. She turned to Wang, who sent officers to hide evidence and cover up Gu's crime, according to Xinhua.

But when Wang started to have second thoughts about the crime, he approached Bo, who is referred to in the Xinhua account not by name but as the "leading official of the Communist Party of China Chongqing Committee."

In that Jan. 28 meeting with Bo, Wang received "an angry rebuke and was boxed in the ears."

A week later, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he revealed what he knew about Heywood's murder to American diplomats.

From there, the whole sordid affair began to unfold.

Gu was tried and convicted for Heywood's murder, for which she received a suspended death sentence. Wang, who was tried Monday and Tuesday in Chengdu's Intermediate Court, is also expected to be found guilty of all charges, though his sentence may be more lenient because he cooperated with investigators.

The Bo Xilai scandal has been a massive distraction for the party, threatening the smooth transfer of power later this year to a younger generation of leaders. That group was once believed to include Bo, who had been considered a candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power.

But Heywood's murder and the ensuing fallout ended his political career.

Bo, who hasn't been seen or heard from since his downfall in March, remains widely popular among the public for his attention to working-class Chinese, but his naked ambition and show-boating also won him numerous enemies among the leadership.

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Now, it seems he will follow his wife and former police chief to court.

Wang's testimony substantially increases the chances of Bo being indicted, said prominent Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping.

"It seems that Bo Xilai tried to silence the case when he found his wife was involved in a murder," Li said. "That places him under suspicion of covering up the crime and abusing his power."

Still, the timing of an indictment against Bo remains in question, as do the specific charges.

Observers had believed that if Bo were to be charged, the indictment would come well in advance of the looming party leadership congress, which could begin by mid-October.

That no announcement has come could be a sign that the party still has not reached a consensus on what to charge him with, said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human rights researcher and expert on the Chinese legal system.

"They're sort of running out of time," Rosenzweig said, "so the question remains as to whether they are going to limit the charges to the Heywood case, or expand them to cover other issues such as corruption.

Wang's trial, he added, does seem to show the party is ready "to take to the next step" and charge Bo.

It's just a question of when.