More than 150 senior Communist Party officials arrived in Xianning, Hubei province, yesterday to oversee the highly anticipated trial of Sichuan mining tycoon Liu Han for alleged mafia-style crimes.
It is the first public trial of a person connected to the wider corruption investigation of Zhou Yongkang, the retired domestic security tsar.
The party leadership also said that charges of embezzlement, bribery, misuse of state funds and abuse of power had been filed in the long-awaited case of Gu Junshan, the army's former deputy logistics head. He is a close ally of Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.
The timing of the announcement was meant to demonstrate the leadership's resolve to catch further corrupt senior officials, observers said.
The officials in Xianning included the vice-president of the country's top court, Li Shaoping, deputy chief prosecutor Zhu Xiaoqing and other security and propaganda officials from Beijing, Sichuan, Hubei and Guangdong. Streets were cleared around 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 away onlookers and petitioners.
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 crime and carried out at least nine murders, according to the indictment seen by the Post.
The name of Zhou Yongkang's eldest son, Zhou Bin, did not appear in the indictment. This was despite mentions in the case files - and in transcripts of police interviews - of him having at least two business dealings with Liu, according to sources.
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, former head 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 state-run media had provided too much negative information about Liu.
"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."
Liu asked the court yesterday to call witnesses to prove his innocence, but the judge refused, saying it was not the right time.
Liu's other lawyer, Xuan Dong, quoted the defendant as telling him: "I'm a dead man already, so there's no need to defend me seriously."
A family member, who declined to be named, insisted that Liu was innocent. "You could charge him with anything, such as economic crimes. But he is not a gangster," he said.
Liu's downfall, like those of other private business owners arrested in Zhou's powerbase of Sichuan, has had a profound impact on the area'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.
The trial is likely to last for more than a week.