By Terril Yue Jones
CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - A former police chief who revealed China's biggest political scandal in two decades has gone on trial charged with attempting to defect to the United States, in a hearing that could send shivers through China's leadership transition.
Wang Lijun, ex-police chief of southwestern Chongqing municipality, lifted the lid on the scandal in February when he went to a U.S. consulate and, according to sources, told envoys there about a murder that would later bring down one of the nation's most senior and ambitious politicians, Bo Xilai.
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 a British businessman. Gu has since been given a suspended death sentence for the killing in late 2011.
The trial started on Monday in the city of Chengdu with an unannounced closed-door session to hear charges of defection and abuse of power against Wang, China's official Xinhua newsagency said on Tuesday.
Wang's "open trial" to hear charges of bribe taking and "bending the law for selfish ends" started on Tuesday, said Xinhua. But the trial remained behind closed doors in the imposing, grey stone Chengdu City Intermediate People's Court.
Outside the court about a dozen police patrolled in front of closed gates, while some 50 journalists were kept behind red tape across the road.
Reporters were later ordered away and told a verdict announcement would be made later in the day in a nearby hotel. Almost all criminal cases that go to trial in China end with a guilty verdict.
The charges against Wang carry sentences ranging from a lengthy jail term to life in prison and the death penalty.
"It will probably be somewhere between 15 years to the same verdict for Gu Kailai -- the death penalty, but commuted to suspended capital punishment," said Cheng Li, a China expert with the Brookings Institution, a thinktank in Washington.
Almost oblivious to the trial inside, commuters crammed the tree-lined street with a cacophony of horns from the constant stream of cars, buses, cabs and bikes.
"It's a normal thing, the same in any country," said a man in his 30s who walked passed the court. "In any group of politicians you'll have a minority who are corrupt," said the man, who said his name was Yang.
Officials in Chengdu -- the city where Wang staged his dramatic flight to the U.S. consulate -- said they had no information on the trial, and court officials did not answer phone calls. Wang's lawyer could also not be reached.
TRIAL CLOSELY WATCHED
The trial will be 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. 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.
Bo had been considered a strong candidate for the next top leadership team, 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 would then succeed Hu Jintao as president in March.
There is speculation the Bo affair could also be delaying the announcement of dates of the congress which remain a mystery despite widespread expectations that it will convene in mid-October. For the previous three congresses, which are held every five years, the date has been announced by late August.
Wang, 52, has been a close confidante of Bo and, according to the official case, and he originally agreed to cover up Gu's involvement before reversing course, fleeing to the Americans and lifting the lid on the alleged cover-up. It is not clear what happened in the consulate, but he eventually left the U.S. mission into the custody of Chinese authorities.
Wang was a self-promoter who was hailed by some for his anti-crime efforts in Chongqing, and he was the inspiration for a television series. Others saw him as having too much law-enforcement power and being over-enthusiastic in wielding it.
He was also eccentric: sources said he sometimes did his own post mortems, boasted of being an FBI agent under an exchange program and of once being kidnapped by the Italian mafia.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Michael Perry)