The wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai has stood trial for the murder of a British former associate in an opening hearing that marks a key step toward resolving one of the country's biggest political scandals in decades.
Gu Kailai and a household aide faced charges of murdering Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had close ties to the Bo family, at the Hefei Intermediate People's Court in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui on Wednesday.
The two are accused of poisoning Heywood in November in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where Bo was party chief until his ouster this spring. Gu reportedly had a falling out with Heywood over money and worried that her son's safety was threatened.
Gu and Zhang Xiaojun, the aide, are likely to be found guilty of intentional homicide, which carries a punishment ranging from more than 10 years in jail to a life sentence. They could also receive the death penalty.
In announcing the indictment about two weeks ago, the official Xinhua News Agency made clear the government considers the verdict a foregone conclusion.
"The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial," it said.
It was not known how long the trial would last, but it was expected to be short.
The scandal has drawn attention to political infighting that China prefers to keep secret and comes at a time when the government is preparing for a once-a-decade political transition that will install a new generation of leaders. Bo was once a contender for a top job.
Before his ouster in the spring, Bo, also the son of a revolutionary veteran, was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians. His overt maneuvering for a top political job, as well as high-profile campaigns to bust organised crime and promote communist culture, while trampling over civil liberties and reviving memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution in the process, angered some leaders, however.
The infighting came to light in February with the sudden flight to the US Consulate in Chengdu of longtime Bo aide and former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun.
Apparently fearing for his safety if he remained in Chongqing, Wang told US diplomats about his suspicions that Heywood had been murdered and that Bo's family was involved.
In April, Bo was stripped of his most powerful posts and Gu was named a suspect in Heywood's murder. That was followed by a report late last month about her indictment, which indicated that the leadership had closed ranks and reached a general agreement about the case and was ready to move forward with the trial.
Bo is the first Politburo member to be removed from office in five years and the scandal kicked up talk of a political struggle involving Bo supporters' intent on derailing succession plans calling for Vice-President Xi Jinping to lead the party for the next decade.
That would open the way for a court trial with charges possibly including obstructing police work and abuse of power. Thus far, Bo has been accused only of grievous but unspecified rules violations.