More than 300 left-wing members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party have penned an open letter to the country's parliament calling for a fair trial and more information about criminal proceedings against fallen political star Bo Xilai.
The Communist Party last month expelled Bo from the Party for bribery and sexual misconduct, saying criminal proceedings against him would follow, and that he was "responsible" for the murder of a British businessman.
Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was handed a suspended death sentence in August for Neil Heywood's murder.
The rare open letter to the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's parliament, which was signed by intellectuals and former officials from the left of the Party, called on the legislature not to expel Bo from its ranks until more evidence about the accusations against him had been made public.
"What is the reason for the expulsion of Bo Xilai?" said the letter, which appeared on the leftist website "Red China" on Monday. "Please investigate the facts and the evidence," it said.
The letter is the first high-profile and public support of Bo since his expulsion from the Party was announced last month.
"Please announce to the people evidence so that Bo Xilai will be able to defend himself in accordance with the law," the letter said.
"If the legitimate rights of ... former Chongqing Party secretary Bo Xilai ... can be violated as if by lightning, then how much hope is there that the rights of ordinary citizens will be protected under the law?" it added.
The court that eventually tries Bo is likely to come down heavily on one of China's former political stars, the "princeling" son of revolutionary veteran Bo Yibo, who has rocked the highest echelons of leadership with the biggest political scandal in two decades.
Political analysts say that the trials of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and former right-hand man and police chief Wang Lijun, were both heavily scripted, while a top forensic expert called official evidence against Gu into question.
The letter comes from a small but vocal minority within the Party, just as it gears up for a once-in-a-decades leadership transition on Nov. 8 amid the worst political scandal in three decades.
It said the case against Bo as reported so far was legally questionable and politically motivated.
Among those who signed were former statistics bureau official Li Chengrui, Beijing University law professor Han Deqiang, who founded the now-closed leftist forum Utopia, local legislators, as well as a rights activist from the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Li told Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper that the letter didn't represent an attempt to plead Bo's case with the Chinese leadership.
"This is about protecting his rights," Li said. "They say that they are going to strip him of his status as a delegate to the NPC, and we are concerned that isn't in accordance with due process, and whether his right to a legal defense has received sufficient protection."
"This isn't just about Bo Xilai's rights as a citizen; it's about the authority of the law," the paper quoted him as saying.
China blocked or banned key leftist sites after the Chongqing scandal was made public, and Red China is now largely only accessible from outside the "Great Firewall" of blocks, filters and human censorship.
'Abuse' of power
Following internal, secret hearings at the highest level of leadership, Bo's case was handed over to law enforcement agencies after he was stripped of his Party membership and formally removed from his public posts.
According to official media reports at the time, Bo "seriously violated" Party discipline during his tenure as Commerce Minister, as Party secretary of the northeastern port city of Dalian, and, most recently, in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing.
"Bo abused his power, made severe mistakes and bore major responsibility in the Wang Lijun incident and the intentional homicide case of [his wife] Gu Kailai," Xinhua news agency reported, citing Bo's former right-hand man and police chief who was jailed for 15 years just days before.
Bo "took advantage of his office to seek profits for others and received huge bribes personally and through his family," Xinhua said, in a report that made any attempt at a fair trial look highly unlikely.
The Party Central Committee "had heard" how Bo's powerful position was also abused by Gu, the agency said.
"Bo's behaviors have yielded serious consequences, badly undermined the reputation of the Party and the country, created very negative impacts at home and abroad and significantly damaged the cause of the Party and the people," the Central Committee concluded.
Citing Bo's rights under China's Constitution, the letter called on NPC chairman and vice-premier Wu Bangguo to adopt its proposals, and to publicly announce the reasons for adopting them.
Beijing-based academic Wang Zheng, who teaches at a Party cadre economic management school, said she had signed the letter out of concern at irregularities in the way Bo's case was being handled.
"Only the police should have the right to detain someone, and they should only do so when there is evidence against them," Wang said. "Bo Xilai is a delegate to the NPC, not a representative of the Party, and it's very serious that they should brush aside due process."
"The Party has no right to do this unilaterally," she said.
However, Chongqing-based netizen Fang Hong, who was sent to labor camp during Bo and Wang's anti-crime campaigns in the city, said that the attempt to protect Bo's rights was misguided, and could backfire.
"None of the suspects or convicted criminals detained in [labor camp] are allowed to see their relatives," Fang said. "The political campaigns run by Bo Xilai in Chongqing all contravened the [post-1979] reform and opening up policies."
"[This letter] will just put more nails in Bo Xilai's coffin."
Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said the lack of judicial independence in China meant that Bo's case could never be treated as a straightforward criminal investigation.
"There is political in-fighting involved here," Gao said. "[The letter-writers] never supported the [reform policies of late supreme leader] Deng Xiaoping, or the new era touted by [outgoing president] Hu Jintao."
"They see the growing gap between rich and poor, and official corruption, as the doing of the ascendant faction, and they want a return to the era of Mao Zedong, to the dictatorship of the proletariat," she said.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.