A Chinese official appeared to confirm on Friday reports that a former Chongqing police chief tied to disgraced politician Bo Xilai will stand trial for treason over the case of a British businessman's murder that Bo's wife Gu Kailai reportedly admitted committing.
News of the impending trial of Wang Lijun, the ex-police head in the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing, where Bo had been the ruling Chinese Communist Party chief, came as four police officers admitted covering up the killing of businessman Neil Heywood to protect Gu.
Wang's trial could be held as early as next week, reports have said.
"We have heard that [Wang Lijun's trial] will apparently be held in Chengdu," said an official who answered the phone at the municipal justice department in Sichuan's provincial capital.
No details have yet been made public by China about the ongoing investigation into "serious violations" of discipline alleged against Bo and his former police chief Wang Lijun, whose Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu triggered the biggest political scandal to rock the Communist Party in decades.
While the official declined to confirm Hong Kong media reports that Wang would be tried in the city next week, he did confirm that the former police chief would face charges of "treason."
"If it is a question of treason, then mostly they won't hold an open trial," the official said. "Most cases involving state secrets wouldn't necessarily be tried publicly."
The official declined to comment further on Wang's case, however. "It will be carried out according to law," he said. "At this critical juncture, what else can I say? According to law. I expect you know what that means."
Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper quoted two separate sources on Friday as saying that Wang will be tried for treason in Chengdu next week.
Chinese state media reported Friday that Bo's wife Gu Kailai has admitted murdering Heywood and blamed her actions on a "mental breakdown."
The Xinhua news agency added that Gu had said at her murder trial on Thursday that she would "shoulder responsibility" for losses to her party and country.
Gu, who is accused of poisoning the 41-year-old Heywood, said she would "accept and calmly face any sentence" handed to her by the court, Xinhua news agency said.
In a statement made to the court Thursday, Gu said she accepted all the facts written in the indictment, the official agency added.
According to Chengdu-based lawyer Ma Xiaopeng, ex-police chief Wang's trial will likely be shrouded in even more secrecy than Gu's, in which only 140 spectators were allowed into the courtroom.
"I'm guessing it won't be an open trial, firstly because of the charges, and secondly because they wouldn't want the details to get out into the public domain," Ma said. "If everyone got to know about it, I think it would be very damaging to the Party's image."
However, he thought Wang was unlikely to receive the death penalty.
"He will have good behavior taken into account because he revealed a lot of stuff about Bo Xilai,"Ma said.
Meanwhile, four of Wang's most senior officers, Guo Weiguo, Li Yang, Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi admitted in a trial on Friday to attempting to protect Gu from suspicion of the murder, an official was quoted saying by Reuters.
The official's statement came after an 11-hour hearing at the Hefei Intermediate Court in eastern China which was barred to nonofficial media. A verdict will be given at a later date.
Neither the official account of Gu's closed-door trial, the most politically explosive case in China in three decades, nor that of Friday's proceedings mentioned Bo by name. But the legal noose appears to tightening around the brash politician who cast himself as a leftist alternative to China's rulers.
Court official Tang Yigan told reporters in the eastern city of Hefei that the four police officers had found that Gu was a prime suspect in the British businessman's death.
Heywood, 41, was discovered dead in a Chongqing hotel, and was quickly cremated after his death was blamed on a drinking binge.
Chinese police cordoned off the courthouse Friday and excluded foreign reporters from the police officers' case, while vans parked nearby bristled with video surveillance equipment, Reuters reported.
No public places were available in the ostensibly open-door hearing, a court spokeswoman told reporters.
Meanwhile, scuffles broke out between security personnel and reporters from Hong Kong, some of whom said they were beaten in the melee, according to footage from the scene.
"We are trying to carry out our public duty," one police officer is heard telling reporters. "Please cooperate."
Analysts say the timing of the trials suggests that the authorities are keen to wrap up the Bo scandal ahead of a crucial leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year.
They said that verdicts on Bo's and Wang's fate could follow that of Gu.
The scandal surrounding Bo's downfall has left his supporters without a charismatic figure to spearhead what they saw as efforts to clean up the Party and rein in the effects of breakneck economic growth and social upheaval over the past three decades.
But other groups within the Party saw him as a potentially dangerous populist leader who, with his revolutionary song campaigns and appeals to mass public opinion, had the potential to bring back the political turmoil and bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
A Chongqing resident surnamed Liang said he hadn't been following Bo's case very closely, however.
"They changed a bunch of officials in Chongqing .. .now the anti-gang campaigns have been overturned and they are all engaged in a power struggle," Liang said.
"This isn't going to improve the lot of ordinary people," he said. "They have pinned some crimes on the last lot, but the new lot are just as corrupt."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.