By John Ruwitch
HEFEI, China (Reuters) - Four Chinese policemen admitted on Friday to attempting to protect the wife of powerful politician Bo Xilai from suspicion of the murder of a British businessman, an official said, in another damaging development for the ex-Politburo member.
The official's statement, given after an 11-hour hearing barred to non-official media, formally establishes for the first time that there was an attempted cover-up of the murder of businessman Neil Heywood and comes just a day after Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, chose not to contest a charge of poisoning Heywood.
Neither the official account of Gu's closed-door trial, the most politically explosive case in China in three decades, nor that of Friday's proceedings mentioned Bo by name. But the legal noose appears to tightening around the brash politician who cast himself as a leftist alternative to China's rulers.
Court official, Tang Yigan, told reporters in the eastern city of Hefei that the four - police from Bo's former power base of southwest Chongqing, the vast municipality where Heywood was killed last November - had found that Gu was a prime suspect.
"By falsifying interview records, concealing evidence and other means, they covered up the fact that she had been at the scene," Tang said, adding that one of the four policemen, Guo Weiguo, was a friend of the Bo family.
"They also agreed on deeming Heywood's death to have been a sudden death caused by drinking and on not establishing a criminal case," he added.
"They also induced Neil Heywood's family to accept the conclusion that it was a sudden death after drinking, and they did not carry out an autopsy and carried out a cremation."
Formal verdicts for Gu and the four policemen - Guo Weiguo, Li Yang, Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi - are to be handed down at a later date, the court said. Bo's former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, has yet to be indicted, though the South China Morning Post has said Wang's trial could follow next week.
Gu and a family aide are accused of poisoning Heywood at a Chongqing hotel after a business dispute between her and the Briton turned personal. Chongqing police sources told Reuters before her trial that Bo had ordered a cover-up after being told by Wang in January that Gu was the chief suspect.
The murder scandal erupted after Wang dramatically sought temporary refuge in a U.S. consulate in February, just weeks after he was said to have confronted Bo with Gu's involvement.
"DEALING WITH BO"
Bo was sacked as Chongqing boss in March and his wife was publicly accused of Heywood's murder in April, when Bo was also dumped from the Politburo and detained on an accusation he had violated party discipline - code for corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds.
Until then, Heywood's death had been attributed to a possible heart attack brought on by too much alcohol.
Chen Guangwu, a criminal defense attorney who has followed the Chongqing case closely, said he expected the verdicts against Gu and the four policemen to come in about two weeks.
"But they won't delay for too long, because this case is being heard in order to pave the way for dealing with Bo Xilai himself," said Chen, who is based in Shandong province.
"This case is in part about testing the waters for that. That is, they will sentence her and see what reaction there is in society and public opinion."
Bo's downfall has stirred more public division than that of any other party leader for more than 30 years. To leftist supporters, Bo became a charismatic rallying figure for efforts to reimpose party control over dizzying and unequal market growth.
But he made some powerful enemies among those who saw him as a dangerous opportunist who yearned to impose his harsh policies on the entire country.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Reuters TV in HEFEI; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Robert Birsel)