The death sentence slapped on a mining tycoon with links to former state security czar Zhou Yongkang may be an indication that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is seeking to limit the damage done by its probe into the former elite Politburo standing committee member, analysts said.
Sichuan billionaire Liu Han, 48, was handed the death sentence by a court in Xianning city in the central province of Hubei on Friday after being found guilty of leading a "mafia-style gang."
Liu, who shouted "I've been framed" and "I've been wronged" before being taken away by guards at the sentencing hearing, was charged with 13 crimes including murder, running illegal gambling establishments and arms racketeering.
His younger brother, Liu Wei, also known as Liu Yong, was sentenced to death at the same time, the Xianning Intermediate People's Court said in a statement on its official Sina Weibo account.
The Liu brothers' personal assets were confiscated, while Liu Han's Sichuan Hanlong group was fined 300 million yuan (U.S. $48 million) for crimes including fraud in relation to bank loans.
However, Liu has denied most of the charges, including running a criminal gang, claiming his confessions were obtained through a combination of torture during interrogation and threats to his wife and child.
Liu's case is seen as a bellwether for China analysts trying to predict the direction the party will take with Zhou, who is currently believed to be under investigation for corruption along with dozens of former colleagues, political allies and family members.
Since taking office in March 2013, President Xi Jinping has vowed to go after high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies" amid a nationwide anti-corruption drive. However, no direct announcement has been made regarding Zhou's fate.
While state media has reported on the detention of many of Zhou's associates, it has only obliquely mentioned the probe into Zhou's political and business empire, which spanned the petrochemical and mining industries, a regional power base in Sichuan and China's hugely powerful domestic security apparatus.
Zhou retired from public office in November 2012, and could become the highest-ranking party official to be targeted by an anti-graft campaign, if he is eventually openly accused.
Avoiding a chain reaction
Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine Beijing Spring, said the case against Liu appeared to have been deliberately limited to avoid implicating too many other people and setting off a chain reaction of allegations.
Prosecutors had tried to paint Liu as the head of an independent criminal organization, without looking too closely at his high-profile business dealings and government connections at the highest levels, he said.
"They didn't really mention much to do with bribes, or transactions between money and [political] power," Hu said. "This gives us reason to suspect that the Zhou Yongkang case may just be left unresolved."
"If, as the government says, Liu Han had so much influence, then it goes without saying that he would have had dealings involving money and influence with Sichuan's most important leader, Zhou Yongkang," he said.
"If they are avoiding this question, then they are also leaving the question of Zhou Yongkang to one side."
For China's leaders, making allegations of bribery at the highest levels of government isn't something to be taken lightly, according to New York-based China political analyst Wang Juntao.
"Bribery and economic crimes are universal now throughout the Chinese bureaucracy," Wang said. "If they use these as a means of going after Zhou Yongkang, a lot of people might start coming forward and revealing similar behavior by officials in their locality."
"This would bring chaos across the Chinese government."
Limited charges against Zhou?
He said a limited set of charges against Zhou now looks more likely than an all-out investigation of his actual political and business dealings.
The conviction of Zhou's political protege and former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai for corruption and abuse of power, as well as that of his wife Gu Kailai for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, is an example of the sort of case the government might bring, Wang said.
"In this sort of case, the number of suspects is far smaller, and most of the important material is already in the hands of the central commission for discipline inspection," Wang said.
"They were able to use it as a way to take down political opponents and still remain in control of undesirable outcomes," he said.
Speculation has been mounting for months that the Communist Party may be getting ready to charge Zhou, 71, a former member of the party's Politburo standing committee, with corruption and abuse of power.
Zhou stepped down as Politburo standing committee member and head of the political and legal affairs commission in November 2012, where he wielded huge power, political analysts say.
His post, from which he oversaw the rolling out of a nationwide "stability maintenance" system and was granted a sharp rise in the domestic security budget, has since been downgraded to report to the all-powerful Politburo standing committee.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.