A Sichuan mining tycoon has been charged with running a mafia-style gang involved in murder and extortion, a case that appears connected to the wider corruption probe into associates of retired security tsar Zhou Yongkang.
Liu Han, the former chairman of Sichuan Hanlong, was accused of being the ringleader of 35 suspects charged yesterday in Xianning, Hubei, with participating in various criminal activities, Xinhua reported.
The state news agency described the case as the largest prosecution of a criminal gang by mainland authorities in recent memory.
Liu ranked 148th on the Forbes's 2012 China Rich List with an estimated fortune of US$855 million. Xinhua said Liu and his gang had amassed nearly US$7 billion through their crimes.
Xianning, along with Yichang, has been chosen to handle most of the corruption cases related to the wide-ranging investigation into Zhou, three people told the South China Morning Post. The people said Zhou, who once led the country's domestic security apparatus, was being held in Inner Mongolia.
Officials, journalists and businessmen in Sichuan said Liu has been described as Zhou's "godson", but the claim could not be verified. The financial news outlet Caixin has also reported that Liu was involved in a business deal with Zhou's elder son, Zhou Bin , in 2003.
Prosecutors said Liu, 48, and his 44-year-old brother Liu Wei, also known as Liu Yong, were the leaders of the crime gang, which is believed to have carried out at least nine murders.
Liu Han faces 15 charges, including murder, financial crimes, running casinos and illegally selling firearms. He is also accused of bribing government officials. If convicted, he could face the death sentence.
At least 20 guns, three hand grenades and more than 600 bullets were seized from the gang's weapons cache, Xinhua reported.
The suspects are believed to have been involved in illegal activities in Beijing, Sichuan and other provinces since at least 1993, China Central Television reported. The gang controlled "huge economic interests and seriously disturbed local public security and economic and social order", the report said.
Hanlong, a privately owned conglomerate founded in 1997, has been aggressively buying overseas assets in recent years and holds a stake in the Australian-listed iron ore miner Moly Mines.
Hanlong was in the middle of a US$1.4 billion deal to takeover Sundance Resources early last year, when Liu was arrested on suspicion of sheltering his brother, who was on the run from accusations he was involved in a 2009 street-killing.
Liu's lawyer, Xuan Dong, said his client could appear in court by the end of the month.
"This case is very complicated and I have to review large quantities of documents in a very short time," he said.
The Xianning court refused to answer questions about the case.
Calls to Sichuan Hanlong in Chengdu went unanswered yesterday.
Liu's case has coincided with the detention of several high-ranking officials in Sichuan, which Zhou led for three years and maintained as a political powerbase. Official sources have made no links between Liu's case and the broader investigation into Zhou.
Li Chongxi , a top member of the political advisory body in the province, has been under investigation for corruption since December 2013 and Guo Yongxiang , a former deputy Sichuan governor, is also under investigation for graft.
Liao Rui, a lawyer in Chengdu, said the Liu brothers were well-known in Sichuan. A school Liu Han helped build survived the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 while many others around in collapsed.
"Officials in Sichuan must have been familiar with the stories of Liu Han for a long time," Liao said. "It must be part of other initiatives to charge him at this specified time and I think the person behind him is the ultimate target."