The trial of the wife of ousted former Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai for the murder of a British businessman is scheduled to go ahead on Thursday amid widespread speculation over whether she will receive the death penalty.
Amid the biggest political scandal to hit the ruling Communist Party in decades, China last Thursday formally charged Gu Kailai and a former employee with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The official Xinhua news agency, in reporting the charges, appeared to prejudge the proceedings, reporting Gu and Zhang Xiaojun's guilt as a matter of fact.
"The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial," Xinhua reported last week in the first official word on the once-powerful Bo family's fate since the March 15 ouster of Bo Xilai as Communist Party secretary of Chongqing.
"Therefore, the two defendants should be charged with intentional homicide," the agency reported.
"Worrying about Neil Heywood's threat to her son's personal security, [Gu] Kailai along with Zhang Xiaojun, the other defendant, poisoned Neil Heywood to death," it said.
Heywood, 41, was discovered dead in a Chongqing hotel in November, and was quickly cremated after his death was blamed on a drinking binge.
The trial in Hefei, the capital of eastern China's Anhui province, will be attended by two officials from the British Embassy in Beijing, according to media reports.
Suspended sentence possible?
The ouster of Bo, 63, is the most serious upheaval in the highest echelons of China's leadership since Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was purged in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and comes ahead of a crucial leadership transition later this year.
While Western media reports have suggested Gu will escape the death sentence, Chinese commentators said Gu is likely at first to be sentenced to death.
"My guess is that she will be sentenced to death in the first instance," said Canada-based political analyst and veteran journalist Jiang Weiping. "If they commute that sentence it will likely be on appeal, on the basis that she confessed."
Meanwhile, prominent Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said that Chinese law is very clear about the penalty for intentional homicide.
"Criminal law dictates that she should get the death penalty," Pu said. "Gu Kailai is named as the first defendant, which suggests that she was the instigator."
"There are two people and one of them ordered the other, so how can you talk about mitigating circumstances?"
But he said Gu might nonetheless receive a suspended death sentence."
'Soft landing' for Bo?
Rights lawyer Hao Jinsong said the possibility of life imprisonment is also there, but said neither Gu nor Zhang look set to get a fair trial.
"The biggest problem with this case is that Gu Kailai has been denied the right to see her lawyer," Hao said. "This means that she will have no way to speak up in her own defense during the trial."
"On the face of it, the trial will be open, but in reality it's very secret."
"There is also a likelihood that her employee [Zhang] will be sentenced to death, or given a suspended death sentence or life imprisonment," Hao added.
Hong Kong-based political commentator Ching Cheong said Gu's trial would give a fair indication of how severely the authorities plan to treat Bo Xilai himself.
Commenting on a recent report in Asia Week that Gu would receive a relatively light sentence of 15 years, while Zhang would be executed, Ching said: "If Gu Kailai only gets 15 years...then nothing really bad will happen to Bo Xilai, other than his removal from office at the very worst."
"This would basically mean a soft landing for the entire Bo Xilai affair," he said. "
No details have yet been made public by China about the ongoing investigation into "serious violations" of Party discipline alleged against Bo and his former police chief Wang Lijun, whose Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu triggered the scandal.
"If [that proves to be the case], then it will be proof positive that the [Party] doesn't want this blown up too big," Ching added.
The timing of the trial has raised concerns that it will be used to deflect attention from the Shandong homicide trial of Chen Kegui, nephew of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who clashed with local police in the wake of the latter's escape from house arrest and subsequent flight to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Reported by Wen Jian and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Bi Zimo for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.