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Murder trial starts next week for Chinese politician's wife, friend says

By Steven Jiang and Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The trial of Gu Kailai is expected to begin Thursday
  • Gu and a family aide are accused in the murder of a British businessman
  • She is the wife of disgraced Communist Party figure Bo Xilai

Beijing (CNN) -- The wife of a former Communist Party leader will go on trial next week in the alleged killing of a British businessman, a friend of the suspect's family said Friday.

The trial of Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, is expected to start Thursday in the eastern city of Hefei, according to the friend, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Gu and a family aide were charged in the November death of British businessman Neil Heywood. If convicted, Gu could face the death penalty, but the friend said her life is expected to be spared.

Read more: Bo scandal 'good' for China, expert says

Each of the defendants will be allowed to have two relatives at the trial, which is expected to be speedy, according to the friend.

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Heywood died in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, where Bo was the Communist Party chief and a rising star in the party -- the son of one of the "eight immortals" of the revolution that created modern China.

Heywood was found dead in his hotel room, and officials quickly blamed his death on excessive alcohol. His body was cremated without an autopsy.

But controversy swirled in February, when Bo's longtime lieutenant, Wang Lijun, sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu.

Wang, the former police chief who managed Bo's anti-crime push, wanted political asylum, apparently fearing for his life and allegedly holding incriminating information against his boss.

Read more: The inside story of China's great political drama

Media reports and online posts claimed he clashed with Bo after suggesting that Heywood had been poisoned amid a business dispute with Gu -- an allegation that appears in the charges announced.

Gu and the family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, were arrested in early April and have not seen their relatives since then, the friend said.

The Xinhua news agency also announced in April that Bo had been stripped of his seats on the Communist Party's Central Committee for an unspecified "serious breach of regulations."

Wang was taken into custody once he left the consulate for entering the diplomatic post without authorization.

Authorities say Gu and her son squabbled with Heywood over "economic interests," and she regarded him as a threat to her son's safety.

Britain, which had asked China to investigate the matter further, said it welcomed the charges.

Read more: Interest in Bo Xilai scandal bigger abroad than in China

"The details of the ongoing investigation are a matter for the Chinese authorities," a Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement last week. "However, we are glad to see that the Chinese authorities are continuing with the investigation. We are dedicated to seeking justice for him and his family and we will be following developments closely."

Speculation has grown over the nature of Heywood's work in China and his ties to Bo's family.

Gu Kailai is suspected of killing British businessman Neil Heywood, pictured here in an undated photo.
Gu Kailai is suspected of killing British businessman Neil Heywood, pictured here in an undated photo.

Heywood had lived in China for more than a decade and was married to a Chinese woman. Among the companies he advised was a consulting firm founded by former officers of the British spy agency MI6.

That link fueled rumors that he may have had connections to British intelligence services, but Foreign Secretary William Hague denied that possibility in a public statement in April.

Read more: Inside China's murder mystery hotel

"Mr. Heywood was not an employee of the British government in any capacity," he said in a letter. He said that the British government usually never confirms nor denies those accounts, but that he was making an exception, "given the intense interest in this case."

The case has forced the Communist leadership to confront allegations of wrongdoing by a high-ranking member in an unusually public way, according to Douglas Paal, a top China analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The disruption of his departure from office and his wife's crimes have made it difficult to present a facade of unity to their people," Paal said.

That united front has been key to ruling China for 2,000 years, he said. The current generation of leaders has been particularly sensitive to maintaining it since 1989, when the party hierarchy split over how to deal with the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The leadership is trying to resolve the affair before its once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the Communist Party Congress meeting this year, said Joseph Fewsmith, an international relations professor at Boston University and a longtime China watcher.

CNN's Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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