By John Ruwitch
GUIYANG, China (Reuters) - China scotched reports that disgraced politician Bo Xilai's much anticipated trial would open on Monday, amid chaotic scenes at a courthouse packed with expectant journalists in the south of the country.
A report last week in a Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper prompted dozens of reporters to travel to the sleepy city of Guiyang expecting to cover the trial of the man who was once considered a contender for China's top leadership. The paper has been known to reliably report news Chinese state media won't touch.
Flummoxed, local court officials held a hasty and unusual press conference to deny a trial was in the offing and pleaded for the media to leave them alone.
Almost a year after Bo's fall from grace under a cloud of lurid accusations about corruption, abuse of power and murder, the government has given no definitive timeframe for when Bo will face the courts, or even announced formal charges.
"To date, the Intermediate People's Court of Guiyang has received no information whatsoever about the trial of Bo Xilai taking place in Guiyang," said Jiang Hao, deputy head of the Guiyang court.
"If the next step is to hold the Bo Xilai trial in Guiyang's court, then, as according to rules, we will inform our media friends promptly," Jiang told about 30 reporters crammed into a small room inside the court.
Bo was ousted from his post as Communist Party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing last year following his wife's murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.
Bo, 63, was widely tipped to be promoted to the party's elite inner core before his career unraveled. The downfall came after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled briefly to a U.S. consulate for last February and alleged that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered Heywood with poison.
Gu and Wang have both since been convicted and jailed.
No criminal charges against Bo have yet been revealed, only accusations from the party of corruption and of bending the law to hush up Heywood's killing.
Bo was last seen in public last March and is being held in custody, though there has been no word on his whereabouts and he has not been allowed to defend himself in public.
All of this has added to the air of mystery and fuelled speculation the party will attempt to try him secretly without even paying lip service to due legal process.
"It's not a small thing when you charge a member of the Politburo and a highly visible and relatively popular official," said David Zweig, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The Politburo is the party's decision-making inner core, which Bo was a member of until his downfall.
State media added to the confusion over the weekend when several Chinese news sites picked up verbatim the original report in the Hong Kong newspaper the Ta Kung Pao that the trial was scheduled for Monday.
Further stirring the pot, the influential tabloid the Global Times, published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, said on Monday the trial would likely not be held until after the Chinese parliament's annual session in March.
The issue is the most sensational case of elite political turmoil in China since the fall of the "Gang of Four" after Mao Zedong's death in 1976, and has transfixed the Chinese public, unused as they are to the party's dirtiest secrets being aired in public.
"I hope the trial begins as soon as possible," said Zhang Zhi'an, a journalism professor at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou. "This way the government can give the public a satisfactory explanation."
It is also not known where Bo's trial will take place, though Guiyang is as good a bet as any.
Sensitive trials are often held far from where the alleged crimes took place, to prevent bias or pressure being bought to bear on judges. Gu's trial was in Hefei in the eastern province of Anhui, while Wang's was in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu.
(Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones, Sui-Lee Wee and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)