Old Harrovian murder holds China in thrall

Prosecutors claim 'irrefutable' evidence of Gu Kailai's involvement

It is the scandal that has China gripped and the rest of the world watching avidly.

Bo Xilai was one of China's richest men, tipped by many as future leader of the Communist Party. Now that his wife, Gu Kailai, 53, has been charged with the murder of a British businessman, his future hangs in the balance. She is charged along with Zhang Xiaojun, a member of her household staff. Both are accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old Briton. If found guilty of intentional homicide, the pair face 10 years to life in jail – or the death penalty.

Last week, the Chinese state newswire quoted prosecutors saying they had found "irrefutable and substantial" evidence of Mrs Gu's involvement in the murder.

The case has scandalised China and received worldwide attention. Mrs Gu's husband, an influential member of the ruling Politburo, was reportedly in the running for election to the all-powerful nine-man Politburo Standing Committee that runs the country. But he remains in detention while being investigated for "a severe breach of party discipline" and could face criminal charges.

Like her husband, Mrs Gu is a scion of the Chinese Communist Party elite as the daughter of a renowned general in the People's Liberation Army. Yesterday it was revealed that Mrs Gu and her co-defendant will be represented by two government-appointed lawyers. Observers said the announcement is a clear sign the trial is close to starting. The lawyers are based in Anhui province, where the trial is to be held. It is hundreds of kilometres from Chongqing city, where Mrs Gu is alleged to have killed the British businessman and where her husband was the Communist Party boss until earlier this year.

Mr Heywood, an Old Harrovian, was found dead at the Lucky Holiday Hotel in Chongqing last November. The businessman, who acted as an intermediary between Western and Chinese clients, was understood to have been a member of Mr Bo and Mrs Gu's inner circle for years.

Investigators in Chongqing initially said he died from excessive drinking, and his body was cremated before independent tests could be carried out. However, the scandal unfolded after the city's police chief fled to the US consulate and divulged details of the crime.

It was originally reported that Mrs Gu had killed Mr Heywood because he had threatened to reveal her attempts to move huge sums of money offshore, a revelation that would have scuppered her husband's career.

However, new reports claim that Bo Guagua, Mrs Gu's Harrow-educated son, who has recently been studying at Harvard, had come into "conflict" with Mr Heywood over their "economic interests".

It was suggested that Mrs Gu had begun to fear for her son's safety after Mr Heywood allegedly threatened him.

"Investigation results show that Gu Kailai, one of the defendants, and her son had conflicts with the British citizen Neil Heywood over economic interests," one report said. She was "worrying about Neil Heywood's threat to her son's personal security," it added.

"Gu Kailai along with Zhang Xiaojun ... poisoned Neil Heywood to death. The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial," Xinhua news agency said. Mrs Gu, a former lawyer, was detained in mid-April and has not been seen since.

According to Chinese legal procedure, the trial should start a maximum of six weeks after charges are laid.

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