By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court rules on Thursday whether to award damages to a man who spent a year in a labor camp for an online joke about now disgraced leader Bo Xilai, although experts say compensation, if given, is likely to be low to avoid a flood of new grievances.
Fang Hong, a blogger and former forestry official, said he is demanding 367,000 yuan ($59,000) for psychological suffering after being sentenced in 2011 to a year of re-education in a labor camp at the height of Bo's campaign against organized crime in the city of Chongqing, where he was Communist Party boss.
"Although there is no precedent for this in China, if you want to rule the country according to the law ... how else can you provide compensation aside from with money?" Fang said in a telephone interview this week.
His conviction was overturned last year, a few months after Bo was sacked under a cloud of lurid tales of corruption and his wife's murder of a British businessman.
Bo's time in office was marked by popular social projects but also a crackdown on crime overseen by his then police chief Wang Lijun, which won him many fans but also accusations of heavy-handedness and serious miscarriages of justice.
Fang was sentenced for posting a scatological poem mocking Bo and Wang for their abuse of the city's justice system, an egregious example critics say of how Bo stifled dissent.
Fang said he was "not necessarily hopeful" that the court would offer him the full amount, but that he expected some money for damages, based on regulations that allow for meager daily compensation rates for loss of freedom in such cases.
Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong-Kong-based independent human rights researcher, said the risk of emboldening victims of similar cases made the prospect of a large sum being awarded slim.
"I think it is reasonable to expect that the government might impose some limits on compensation claims to keep a control on the flood gates that might open," Rosenzweig said.
There are no hard and fast figures on the number of cases of legal redress, but more are expected to emerge as Bo's downfall is cemented by his own trial and likely conviction. He was last seen in public last March and is being held in custody.
One prominent lawyer, Chen Youxi, has said over 700 people were convicted as part of Bo's anti-crime gang campaign, including over 70 who were executed.
Hu Cheng, a veteran petitioner who blames Wang Lijun for months of illegal detention after his home was seized by a politically connected developer in Chongqing's Beibei district, said people implicated in Bo's campaign are waiting for his conviction.
"Once they are convinced it is safe, they will come back and demand compensation. It will take years to sort out," Hu told Reuters in Beijing.
Bo, 63, was widely seen as pursuing a powerful spot on the ruling Communist Party's elite inner core before his career unraveled after Wang fled to a U.S. consulate for more than 24 hours last February and alleged that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered British businessman Neil Heywood.
Gu and Wang have both since been convicted and jailed.
Fang's case, magnified by the high-profile Bo scandal, also has been used by lawyers and activists in a recent surge of calls for reform to China's re-education through labor system.
The system, in place since 1957, empowers police to sentence petty criminals to up to four years' confinement without going through the courts. China's domestic security head Meng Jianzhu said earlier this month reforms were a priority.
As China's new leaders prepare to take up the reins of state power at the annual meeting of parliament in March, they are likely to face an outcry if attempts to address the claims of wrongful convictions in Chongqing are not perceived as swift and just.
"Re-examining and correcting these cases of miscarriages of justice and informing the people in a timely manner is absolutely necessary for restoring judicial authority and public confidence," said Tong Zhiwei, a law professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai.
"If these cases aren't handled well, then the people won't have any confidence in the system," he said.
(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Raju Gopalakrishnan)