By John Ruwitch
HEFEI, China (Reuters) - A Chinese court will deliver its verdict on Monday against Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, on charges of killing a British businessman last year in a scandal that has shaken the Communist Party's transition to a new leadership.
Ahead of the verdict hearing due to start at 9 a.m. (9.00 p.m. EDT), a convoy of police vehicles drove into the courthouse complex in the eastern city of Hefei, where dozens of police checked the identity cards of passers-by and watched over a throng of reporters barred from entering the courtroom.
Before entering the court, one of Gu's lawyers, Zhou Yuhao, told reporters: "I hope that the court delivers a fair verdict."
Only a select few reporters from state-run Chinese media were allowed inside.
Gu could receive the death penalty, along with a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, who was also tried for the murder. But many lawyers have said Gu is likely to instead receive a long jail term, because official accounts of the case have highlighted her claim that she was trying to protect her son.
At a trial on August 9, Gu admitted to poisoning the businessman Neil Heywood, and alleged that an economic dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua, according to official accounts published by state media. Zhang, the aide, has not disputed the murder charge but his lawyer said he was a mere accomplice to Gu.
Gu's trial is probably a prelude to formal punishment of Bo Xilai, a brashly ambitious politician under investigation for alleged violations of party discipline -- an accusation that covers corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds. After the party leadership decides on those allegations, Bo could also face criminal charges related to the murder case.
"I don't think it's likely that Gu will receive the death penalty," said He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University who has followed the case closely.
"I think Bo Xilai will also face a criminal trial," said He.
"I don't think it's likely he could claim that from the poisoning in November last year, he had no clue about it, and if he did but tried to hide it or didn't come forward, then that might constitute concealing a crime or obstructing justice."
Bo's hopes for securing a spot in China's next top leadership unraveled after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate in early February for about 24 hours and exposed the murder allegations.
Legal experts and Bo's supporters have questioned the official version of events outlined in court statements and a detailed report by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
"The story spun about a mother sacrificing herself for her own can hardly deceive anyone," Hu Shuli, editor-in-chief of Caixin Media, wrote in an editorial last week.
Bo, the son of a revolutionary, ran the southwestern city of Chongqing where Heywood was killed in November. Bo was seen as competing for a place in the Politburo Standing Committee, the body at the pinnacle of power in China, at a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
His downfall has stirred more division than that of any other leader for more than 30 years. To leftist supporters, Bo was a charismatic rallying figure for efforts to reimpose party control over dizzying, unequal market-led growth.
But he made powerful enemies among those who saw him as an opportunist who wanted to impose his policies on the country.
Bo was sacked as Chongqing boss in March and Gu was publicly accused of the murder in April, when Bo was suspended from the Politburo, a 25-member elite council that ranks below the Standing Committee. He has yet to be expelled from that council.
Four Chinese policemen have also admitted to charges that they sought to protect Gu from investigation -- a development that could also prove dangerous for Bo.
Police sources in Chongqing have said Bo tried to shut down the investigation into his wife after being told she was a suspect. Bo has not been seen in public since March, when he gave a combative defense of his policies and family at a news conference during China's annual parliament session.
Gu cut a plain figure in her court appearance on August 9. She appeared to have put on weight since she was detained, a far cry from the smartly dressed, petite woman shown in past photos.
A court official at the closed-door trial quoted prosecutors as saying Gu's aide Zhang drove Heywood to Chongqing last November from Beijing and prepared a poison which was to be put into a drink of water.
Later that day, Heywood met Gu at a hotel, he became drunk and then asked for water, the official said.
"She poured a poison into his mouth," the court official said, citing the prosecution's account. Heywood's family has said he rarely drank alcohol.
Gu and Zhang stood trial in Hefei, provincial capital of Anhui in eastern China. The government has not said why it held the trial there, but Hefei is more than 1,000 km (650 miles) east of Chongqing, where Bo remains a popular figure.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Dean Yates, Paul Tait and Mark Bendeich)