Chinese prosecutors have charged the wife of disgraced former official Bo Xilai and a family employee with the murder of a British businessman, in connection with a political scandal that has embarrassed the Chinese leadership.
The official Xinhua news agency
reports Bo's wife Gu Kailai, and the employee Zhang Xiaojun, recently were charged with "intentional homicide" in the death of Neil Heywood, who had business dealings with the couple.
Xinhua said Gu and Zhang are suspected of poisoning Heywood, who was found dead in a hotel last November. Chinese authorities initially attributed his death to a heart attack or excessive drinking.
The report said Gu and her son had a disagreement with Heywood over "economic interests." Prosecutors also said Gu was worried about what they called "Heywood's threat to her son's personal security."
It is the first time China has confirmed a motive for the alleged murder and provided details about how the couple's son, Bo Guagua, is connected to the case. The younger Bo recently graduated from a program at Harvard University in the United States, but his whereabouts were not immediately known.
Xinhua also confirmed that Gu and Zhang will face trial in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei, far from Beijing and Chongqing, where Heywood died. It said the date of the trial is yet to be decided. The report also said the evidence against the two defendants is "irrefutable and substantial," indicating Beijing expects a guilty verdict.
A New York lawyer who has studied China’s legal system said Gu and Zhang would face the death penalty if convicted, but could be spared execution if they receive a probationary sentence.
Jim Li of Jim Li & Associates said the defendants have the right to choose their own lawyers and appeal any conviction. But, he said Chinese authorities typically harass defense lawyers in sensitive cases and manipulate the appeal process.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said London is "glad to see that the Chinese authorities are continuing with the investigation" of the case. It said Britain is "dedicated to seeking justice" for Heywood and his family and will be "following developments closely."
The scandal erupted in February when a longtime Bo family aide fled to a U.S. consulate and made accusations of Gu's involvement in Heywood's death. The following month, authorities removed Bo Xilai from his post as Communist Party chief of the city of Chongqing due to unspecified transgressions.
Bo had been a rising star in the ruling party and a likely candidate for promotion in China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition, due to take place at a party congress later this year. Some observers have said Chinese leaders want to resolve the Heywood murder case before the congress to prevent it from being a distraction.
Catherine Maddux contributed to this report.