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Wife of ousted China politician charged with Briton's murder

Reuters, file

Gu Kailai is the wife of China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary, Bo Xilai.

Updated at 12:25 p.m. ET: BEIJING -- The wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai and a family aide have been charged with the murder of a British businessman, the government said Thursday, pushing ahead a case at the center of a messy political scandal that exposed divisions in the country's leadership.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the prosecutor's indictment said Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had a falling out with Briton Neil Heywood over money and worried that it would threaten her and their son's safety. Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are alleged to have poisoned Heywood together, the report said. Heywood's death in November was attributed initially to a heart attack or excessive drinking.

"The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial. Therefore, the two defendants should be charged with intentional homicide," Xinhua said.

It did not give a date for the trial, but a family lawyer told Reuters it was likely to take place on August 7-8.

Thursday's brief report is the first official news that the case against Gu is proceeding since the announcement three months ago that she and Zhang were being investigated and that Bo was being suspended from the powerful Politburo for unspecified discipline violations. The Xinhua report did not mention Bo's case or a separate party investigation into Bo.

Prosecutors have interrogated Bo and Zhang and have "heard the opinions" of their defense lawyers, Xinhua said.

The scandal has exposed the bare-knuckled infighting that the secretive leadership prefers to hide and affirmed an already skeptical public's dim view about corrupt dealings in the party.

City divided by disgraced Communist leader's legacy

Disappeared from public view
Since Bo was dismissed in March, he and his wife Gu, formerly a powerful lawyer, have disappeared from public view and have not responded publicly to the accusations against them.

The charges were filed in the eastern city of Hefei, Xinhua said Thursday. It did not say when exactly the indictment was issued or when the crime occurred and why the case is being prosecuted in Hefei and not in Chongqing, the city Bo ran as Communist party secretary and where the couple lived.

But according to Si Weijiang, a prominent lawyer in China who is followed by 170,000 people on his microblog, Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui Province, was selected due to its political reliability.

Wang Shengjun, who is the chief justice of China's Supreme People’s Court, is from Anhui and the province has, according to Si, built a reputation of being politically reliable and harsh on defendants.

"The case being filed at Hefei, will set Chief Justice Wang's mind at ease," Si wrote Thursday.

Scandal sends China's netizens into a feeding frenzy

In another post, Si noted the intense political ramifications of this case.

"This is a political case. No accidents is success. So it [the court] must be a place that can be trusted," he wrote.

But Fang Hong, a Chongqing resident featured in a piece by NBC News in May, hailed the prosecution move as a "vindication of my criticism" of Bo's rule.

"They tried to destroy the rule of law so as to make it convenient for them to murder people, and now they will get what they deserve," he told NBC News.

"This case is being handled according to the law," he said, adding that "some people with limited understanding wrongly think it is a political striuggle, but it is not. ... What the law says is what they will get."


China.org.cn via Reuters, file

British businessman Neil Heywood, who died in November 2011, was a long-time friend of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai.

Political ascent stopped
Thursday's announcement comes months before the ruling Communist Party unveils a new top leadership.

Before his ouster, Bo was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians. The son of a revolutionary veteran, Bo was seen as a leading candidate for a position in the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest ranks of power, when a younger group of leaders is installed later this year.

Son of sacked Chinese official fights back

On his rise, Bo led high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime and to promote communist culture. In doing so, however, his administration ran roughshod over civil liberties, angered some leaders and alienated others with his publicity seeking.

The removal of Bo has triggered rifts and uncertainty, disrupting the Communist Party's usually secretive and carefully choreographed process of settling on a new central leadership in the run up to its 18th congress.

Left-wing supporters of the charismatic Bo have defended him as the instigator of a much-needed new path for China, and many of them see him as the blameless victim of a plot.

Behind the Wall: Full NBC News coverage from China

The 18th Party Congress, scheduled to be held late this year, will appoint that leadership. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will then step down from their government posts at the National People's Congress in early 2013, when Vice President Xi Jinping is likely to succeed Hu as president.

Growing credibility gap
Analysts here agree that the legal steps announced Thursday are part of the authorities' effort to dispose of the case and remove a major distraction before the once-in-a-decade leadership succession later this year.

However, this week has been a week of disruptions that have kept government propaganda officials and censors busy.

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Besides the ongoing saga of Bo, Beijing this past weekend dealt with the worst flooding in nearly six decades. Just as news of Gu’s charges came out, word also broke that the death count from the flooding, which previously had stood at 37, had been bumped up to at least 77. Many Beijing residents had been highly dubious of earlier government estimates of the death toll, highlighting the party's credibility gap.

The news also came on the eve of the 2012 Olympics in London, where China hopes again to top the tables in gold medals.

Still, the government was not taking any chances: the comments section on the official Weibo account of popular Chinese state newspaper, People's Daily, was turned off for the post regarding Gu's murder charges.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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