Chinese lawyers snub politician's wife linked to Briton Neil Heywood's murder

New twist reignites suspicion surrounding the death of businessman Neil Heywood

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The Independent Online

China's legal establishment has eschewed the opportunity to defend Gu Kailai, the wife of purged Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, as the start of the trial into her alleged role in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood appears imminent.

The difficulty in appointing a lawyer in one of the most high-profile criminal cases in years is over concern at leading Beijing law firms that an association with the scandal could damage future dealings with the Chinese government. "No one wants to get involved," a source, who asked for anonymity, told The Independent.

Beijing says there is strong evidence that Mr Heywood was poisoned after a row over investments, and suspicion has fallen on Ms Gu and Zhang Xiaojun, an aide in their household.

Ms Gu's family, fearful that she may face the death penalty if convicted, has finally had to approach Shen Zhigeng, an anti-establishment lawyer and partner in the Beijing Zong Heng law firm.

A specialist in economic crimes, Mr Shen's clients have included a former vice-minister for public security, Li Jizhou, who was jailed in 2001 for taking bribes in the Yuanhua smuggling scandal, which involved one of China's foremost businessmen. Mr Li looked certain to be executed but Mr Shen managed to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

The government is keen to get the trial under way during the summer so as to have it out of the way before a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in the autumn, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are due to hand over the reins of power to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

There has been no sign of Bo Xilai, 62, and Ms Gu, who is in her early fifties. The charges against Mr Bo are largely political in nature, so a different process takes place before he is charged with anything.

The charges against Ms Gu are criminal and it is very rare in China that anyone who is brought to trial is found innocent. It is likely that she will either be executed, or have her death sentence suspended for two years, which usually means it will not be commuted.

The couple's son, Bo Guagua, who recently graduated from the Kennedy School at Harvard, is believed to still be in the US. His extravagant Western lifestyle sat uneasily with the Maoist conservatism espoused by his father during his time as the Communist party's head in Chongqing province.

The probe has apparently involved the detention of hundreds of allies of Mr Bo, who was suspended in April from the elite Central Committee and its Politburo, effectively ending what was shaping up to be a glittering career.

Those caught up in the investigation range from lower level functionaries to the richest people in China, including Mr Bo's close ally Xu Ming, a billionaire tycoon whom the Chinese authorities are investigating for alleged corruption.

Even some of China's top celebrities have become involved. The Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily accused Mr Xu of procuring the Chinese actor Zhang Ziyi for Mr Bo, and says she had sex with him at least 10 times between 2007 and 2011. Ms Zhang, best known in the West for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, has demanded an apology and denies the claims.