The ruling Chinese Communist Party will keep a tight grip on the case of its fallen political star Bo Xilai until after a crucial leadership transition in October, with the final decision on his fate to be taken soon behind closed doors by the highest echelons of leadership, analysts said this week.
Bo's implication in a criminal act, revealed during the trial of his one-time police chief Wang Lijun who was sentenced this week to 15 years' imprisonment for covering up the murder of a British businessman by Bo's wife, have led many to believe that he will soon face criminal proceedings.
Bo, previously tipped for a top position in the once-a-decade leadership transition expected in October, remains in detention for unspecified "serious discipline violations," but under Party rules, rather than subject to a judicial process.
Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper quoted a Communist Party insider as saying that Bo's case must be decided by the Party before being handed over to the judiciary, however.
Lawyers and rights activists have already criticized previous trials linked to Bo as tightly scripted show trials with no genuine judicial process.
While Ming Pao said that Bo's criminal trial would happen only after a crucial leadership transition next month, the territory's Mingjing News website, also citing Party sources inside China, said the Politburo would hold a meeting this weekend to finalize Bo's fate ahead of the 18th Party Congress.
Bo will likely be stripped of Party membership and any remaining public roles, the reports said.
The Ming Pao said the 18th Congress would take place mid-October, meaning that there would be no time to move ahead with the trial before the leadership transition is announced. Mingjing News said the Congress could even be brought forward amid growing tensions with Japan over a disputed island group in the East China Sea.
Canada-based investigative journalist Jiang Weiping said that the Party would want to oversee Bo's case down to the last detail.
"Such a high-ranking official as Bo Xilai, a [former] member of the Politburo, will have to have his case processed according to internal Party processes," Jiang said in a recent interview.
"As for what sentence he will get, and whether or not he will be executed, that will depend on ... how the Party decides to handle it."
'Bending the law'
On Monday, a court in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu handed a 15-year jail term to Wang, former Chongqing vice-mayor and police chief, after he was found guilty of "bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power, and bribe-taking."
Seven years of the sentence was for the charge of "bending the law for selfish ends" and a further two years was for "abuse of power," with both linked to charges that Wang knew that Bo's wife Gu Kailai was connected to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood last November and did not pursue the investigation further.
According to official reports of Wang's trial, Bo's former right-hand man tried to tell Bo that his wife was suspected of murdering Heywood, but was given an angry reprimand and removed from his post.
And, in an apparent further reference to Bo, Wang's sentence, which carried a maximum penalty of death, was further mitigated by his production of "important clues" that exposed "serious offenses committed by others," the judgment said.
In a new twist Thursday, a prominent Chinese government forensic scientist questioned the cause of Heywood's death, casting doubt on the official version of the scandal.
In a post to her blog that has since been removed, Wang Xuemei, a forensic expert with the top prosecutors' agency, said the official accounts lack sufficient evidence that Heywood died from cyanide poisoning, which she describes as leaving the body obviously discolored, the Associated Press reported.
Wang confirmed in a phone interview Thursday that she is the author of the blog entry posted late Wednesday detailing her suspicions about the case. She said she has had no access to the evidence, but points out discrepancies in details that have been made public.
Analysts said the implication of Bo in Wang's trial was the clearest sign yet that the Party would come down heavily on one of its 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.
"I think we can say ... that Bo Xilai's political life is over," said U.S.-based Chinese Internet journalist Li Hongkuan, adding that Wang's sentencing had "tolled the bell for a lot of people."
"Wang Lijun was Bo Xilai's attack dog, whether it be in striking black or singing red, everything he did was on Bo Xilai's orders," Li said, in a reference to the revolutionary song and anti-crime campaigns that characterized Bo's reign in Chongqing.
"As for how he will be dealt with ... all of this will depend on the political forces [behind the scenes] inside the Communist Party, including [outgoing president] Hu Jintao, [leader-in-waiting] Xi Jinping, and [national security chief] Zhou Yongkang, and how they end up dividing the spoils between them," Li said.
The Ming Pao newspaper quoted its source as saying that the Party elders see Bo's crimes as being more serious than those of former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong and former Shanghai Party boss Chen Liangyu, who were handed jail terms of 16 and 18 years respectively for graft.
However, charging Bo with economic crimes could bring down a number of powerful and well-connected people along with him, the paper said.
Jiang said the trials of Gu and Wang, which lawyers and rights activists have slammed for their lack of transparency and inconsistent handling, were just the beginning of the Party's damage control of the scandal, which emerged with Wang's Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.
"All of these cases ... are part of the same case, which is the Bo Xilai case," he said. "This is a conspiracy of Bo Xilai's to engage in corruption and to murder people. It's still too soon to say whether it has been handled fairly or not."
Gu was handed a suspended death sentence last month for Heywood's murder.
The Bo scandal has exposed to public view rifts within the secretive Communist Party, highlighting tensions between Bo's populist, left-wing policies and the supporters of Hu and Xi, ahead of the crucial leadership transition.
Bo's detractors say he and Wang waged a campaign of terror in Chongqing, using their "strike black" anti-crime campaigns to target innocent businessmen and confiscate their assets. Lawyers linked to the campaigns have described torture and forced confessions as commonplace during Bo's tenure there.
Wang, 52, is reported to have told U.S. envoys in Chengdu about the murder, and part of his trial was held behind closed doors so that sensitive material and "state secrets" could he heard by the court, sources said at the time.
Bo was removed from his post in Chongqing, where he had been regarded as a top contender for a seat on the all-powerful standing committee of the Politburo, on March 15, shortly after a strongly worded warning from premier Wen Jiabao that a failure to enact political reform in China could see a return to the turmoil and violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Jiang said Wang had acted as a whistleblower in the case against Bo. "Without him, Bo Xilai would never have been exposed," he said.
"Objectively, China's progress towards a second Cultural Revolution was averted."
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.