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Trial of China's Bo Xilai opens next week, says Beijing-backed paper

Bo Xilai (2nd R), then Governor of Liaoning Province, pauses at the China Entrepreneur Annual Meeting 2003 in Beijing in this December 7, 20
Bo Xilai (2nd R), then Governor of Liaoning Province, pauses at the China Entrepreneur Annual Meeting 2003 in Beijing in this December 7, 20

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's disgraced former senior politician, Bo Xilai, will go on trial next week, a Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper said on Friday, in what would be the final act of a drama that has shaken the ruling Communist Party.

Bo, once a contender for the top leadership in the world's second-largest economy, was ousted in China's biggest political scandal in two decades last year following his wife's murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

The mainland China-run Ta Kung Pao newspaper said on its website that Bo's trial would start on Monday in the southern city of Guiyang and last three days. It cited "well-informed Beijing sources", but gave no details.

One of Bo's lawyers, Li Guifang, declined to comment when reached by telephone. Reuters was unable to reach his second lawyer, Wang Zhaofeng, despite repeated telephone calls.

A court official in Guiyang who gave his family name as Li said he had not heard anything about the case.

"The case has not yet even been put forward for prosecution," he added.

A source with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters he "had not heard" that the trial would begin next week.

China's Foreign Ministry, typically the only government department which regularly fields questions from foreign reporters, said questions about Bo's trial should be referred to the "relevant authorities" and declined further comment.

Telephone calls to the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, the party's top corruption fighting body, went unanswered. The number for the Justice Ministry's spokesman's office was disconnected.

Officials reached by telephone in Guiyang said they were unaware of the case.

Bo, a former commerce minister, turned the sprawling, haze-covered southwestern municipality of Chongqing into a showcase for his mix of populist policies and bold spending plans that won support from leftists yearning for a charismatic leader.

Bo, 63, was widely seen as pursuing a powerful spot on the party's elite inner core before his career unraveled after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate for more than 24 hours in February and alleged that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered Heywood with poison.

Both Wang and Gu have since been jailed and Bo expelled from the party, accused of corruption and of bending the law to hush up the killing.

Formal charges against Bo have yet to be made public.

Wang Yuncai, one of the lawyers for Wang Lijun, said it was quite possible the court case could open on Monday, though she said she did not know for certain.

"It's already been in the hands of the prosecutors for a long time, so it's quite possible," she said by telephone.

"Judging from the Wang Lijun case, that would mean a verdict within a week of the court hearing."

The two Wangs are not related.

Li Zhuang, a Beijing lawyer who opposed Wang Lijun and Bo for mounting a sweeping crackdown on foes in the name of fighting organized crime, said he also thought it was possible for a Monday hearing.

"I would only say it's possible, though not totally certain," Li said.

China has thrown a veil of official secrecy over Bo's fate, with the latest brief announcement earlier this month simply confirming that he had been handed over to the courts.

That has prompted a wave of rumors, mostly spread by overseas Chinese websites, about when and where the trial will be.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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