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september 13, 2012 • 10:50 PM • last update 11:29 PM

China to try ex-police chief at heart of murder scandal next week

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (L) and former Deputy Mayor of Chongqing Wang Lijun (R) attend a session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) of the Chongqing Municipal Committee, in Chongqing municipality, January 7, 2012.
Foto: Stringer / Reuters In English
 

The former police chief at the heart of China's biggest political scandal in decades faces trial next week on charges of defection, taking bribes and illegal surveillance.

Wang Lijun will be tried at the Intermediate Court in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Tuesday, a court official said on Friday. The trial was expected to last for one day, the official said.

Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February and stayed there for 24 hours, days after his dismissal as police chief of Chongqing, the nearby municipality then run by ambitious politician Bo Xilai.

Bo had raised Wang to prominence as a crime gang-buster.

State media has indicated that Wang had initially gone along with the attempted cover-up of the murder in November of British businessman, Neil Heywood, by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai.

The announcement of the trial comes at a tense political time for China's ruling Communist Party, which is preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership succession that will see the retirement of President Hu Jintao at a congress in coming weeks or months.

It also comes as speculation swirls about the whereabouts of Vice President Xi Jinping, the man most likely to take over from Hu first as party leader and then as president early next year.

Xi has skipped meetings with foreign leaders over the past week, and Beijing has still not issued a statement directly responding to rumors about the 59-year-old's health.

State media has not said whether Wang, 52, intends to contest any of the charges. But China's party-controlled courts rarely find in favor of defendants, and the trial is likely to be held in strict secrecy.

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. He has yet to be formally expelled from it.

Before his downfall, Bo was widely seen as aiming for a spot in the next central leadership, using his charisma, vows of more equal growth and his crime-fighting record in Chongqing to build up a formidable public following.

Sources have said that while Wang was inside the U.S. consulate he told diplomats that he believed Gu was behind Heywood's murder following a business dispute. After he emerged from the consulate and was taken into custody, he repeated those allegations to Chinese investigators, said the sources.

Wang could face a sentence of up to life in jail on the defection charge, and serious bribery charges can attract the death penalty.

Gu received a suspended death sentence last month after confessing to the murder of Heywood.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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