It is the first public trial of a person connected to the wider corruption investigation of the retired domestic security tsar, Zhou Yongkang.
The officials include the vice-president of the country’s top court Li Shaoping, deputy chief prosecutor Zhu Xiaoqing and many other security and propaganda officials from Beijing, Sichuan, Hubei and Guangdong.
Police cleared streets around the Xianning Intermediate People’s Court hours before a fleet of police vehicles arrived escorting several minivans at about 8am. Hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers stood by the roadside, directing onlookers and petitioners away.
Liu, 48, faces 15 charges, including murder, financial crimes, running casinos and illegally selling firearms. Prosecutors say Liu and 35 accomplices accumulated nearly US$7 billion through criminal activity and carried out at least nine murders, according to the indictment seen earlier by the South China Morning Post.
The name of Zhou Yongkang’s eldest son, Zhou Bin, did not appear in the indictment despite mentions in the case files and transcripts of police interviews of him having at least two business dealings with Liu, according to people familiar with the case.
In 2003, Zhou Bin sold a Sichuan-based tourism company to Liu for about 20 million yuan (HK$25 million), even though it was said to be worth less than 6 million yuan, because Liu wanted to “maintain a relationship with Zhou Bin”, the sources said.
Liu, the former chairman of privately owned conglomerate Sichuan Hanlong, was well connected with top officials in Sichuan and Yunnan, they added.
Xinhua earlier described the case as the largest prosecution of a criminal gang by mainland authorities in recent memory.
Liu’s lawyer, Zhang Qingsong, argued that state-run media had provided too much negative information about Liu to the public.
“The information they released is a bit misleading as some of it isn’t even correct,” he said. “Prosecutors today are accustomed to using state media to try a suspect before a court gives its verdict. The rule of law is nonsense in such circumstances.”
During the trial on Monday, Liu asked the court to call witnesses to prove his innocence, but the judge refused, saying it was not the right time
A family member, who declined to be named, said Liu was innocent.
"You could charge him anything, such as economic crimes. But he is not a gangster," he said. "Liu is very busy with his businesses and has no time to organise mafia activities. He is too rich to do that."
Liu’s downfall, like those of many other private business owners arrested in Zhou’s powerbase of Sichuan, has had a profound impact on the region’s entrepreneurs.
Liu Yonghao, another Sichuan tycoon who chairs New Hope Group, one of China’s largest agricultural companies, said at the recent National People’s Conference that the detention of so many Sichuan business owners had been a hot topic among high-worth individuals.
“Clearly the mass detention of private entrepreneurs raises a lot of doubts,” he said.
The trial is likely to last for more than a week, with a break for the three-day Qing Ming (ancestor worship) holidays.