By Terril Yue Jones
CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - A former police chief at the center of China's biggest political scandal in decades admitted attempting to defect to the United States, and did not contest charges of bribery and illegal surveillance at his trial on Tuesday, a court official said.
Wang Lijun, ex-police chief of southwestern Chongqing municipality, sought to conceal the murder of a British businessman by the wife of one of the nation's most senior and ambitious politicians, Bo Xilai, according to an official account of the trial.
But prosecutors acknowledged that Wang's cooperation was central to cracking the murder case and exposing leads to major crimes committed by unnamed others, indicating he will likely get a lenient sentence when the verdict is announced in about 10 days.
"The accused Wang Lijun voluntarily gave himself up after committing the crime of defection, and then gave a truthful account of the main crimes involved in his defection," court spokesman Yang Yuquan said, referring to Wang's dramatic flight to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February.
Wang "exposed leads concerning major criminal offences by others, and played an important role in investigating and dealing with the cases concerned," Yang said. "According to law, his punishment may be reduced."
The charges against Wang carry sentences ranging from a lengthy jail term to the death penalty.
Foreign reporters were barred from attending the trial amid tight security around the courthouse on a busy Chengdu street, and instead were briefed by a court official at a nearby hotel.
As police chief of Chongqing, Wang was known as the strong arm of the law, energetically carrying out Bo's crackdown on crime and gangs.
But "he conducted technical surveillance on many people many times without getting permission, or by falsifying permission," Yang said. "This gravely jeopardizes socialist law and violated legal rights of Chinese citizens."
Wang, shown on state television looking relaxed during the hearing, was also charged with receiving some 3.05 million yuan ($484,000) in unspecified "money and property" in return for securing benefits for unidentified people. Yang did not give details of the gifts or from whom Wang received them.
Wang's trial was closely watched for any evidence that Bo had ordered Wang to cover up his wife's involvement in the murder -- a sign that Bo himself could be next to face trial.
Though the official accounts of the trial did not mention Wang's disgraced former boss Bo, the broad range of charges against Wang and the mention that he had exposed the crimes of others might mean that Bo is not off the hook.
So far, Bo has only been accused of breaching internal party discipline.
The Bo scandal has rocked Beijing, exposing rifts within the party -- elements of which are strong supporters of Bo's populist, left-leaning policies -- at a time when China is preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
Wang, 52, lifted the lid on the murder and cover-up of a British businessman in February when he went to a U.S. consulate and, according to sources, told envoys there about the murder that would later bring down Bo.
Within two months of Wang's 24-hour visit to the consulate, Bo was sacked as party boss and from the ruling Communist Party's Politburo and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of poisoning the businessman. Gu has since been given a suspended death sentence for the killing in late 2011.
SHROUDED IN SECRECY
Wang's trial started on Monday in Chengdu, the city where Wang staged his dramatic flight to the consulate, with an unannounced closed-door session to hear charges of defection and abuse of power, which involved states secrets, Yang said.
The trial continued behind closed doors on Tuesday in the imposing, grey stone Chengdu City Intermediate People's Court.
Prosecutors said Wang "clearly knew that Bogu Kailai was a major suspect in a case of intentional homicide, and deliberately concealed that so she would not be prosecuted," Yang said. Bogu is Gu's official but rarely used surname.
However, Wang decided to later reopen the investigation.
"The defendant exposed other people's serious crimes and played a crucial role in the investigations of relevant cases, making a major contribution," Yang said.
Chinese experts believe Wang may receive a jail term from 15 years to life, but if the death penalty is imposed it would be commuted, as in the Gu Kailai case.
"Wang Lijun is a hero," said a Chengdu shopkeeper who gave his name as Zhong. "He's like heroes of the Song dynasty, fighting crime and corruption."
Bo had been considered a strong candidate for the next top leadership body, which is expected to be unveiled at the party's 18th congress next month. Vice President Xi Jinping is seen as all but certain to take over as party chief and inherit the challenge of trying to heal internal wounds.
Xi is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president in March.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)