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Court says verdict against China's disgraced politician Bo Xilai to be delivered Sunday

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BEIJING, China - A Chinese court announced that it will deliver a verdict Sunday against disgraced politician Bo Xilai on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power in a case set in motion by his wife's murder of a British businessman.

The former Politburo member and Chongqing city party leader vigorously defended himself during his trial last month in the eastern city of Jinan, acknowledging mistakes in his leadership but admitting no guilt in the charges against him.

Prosecutors accused him of interfering with the investigation into his wife's murder of Briton Neil Heywood in November 2011, as well as other corruption uncovered by investigators. However, the case against him also was widely perceived as a result of his downfall in factional infighting ahead of China's leadership transition last fall.

The Jinan Intermediate People's Court said Wednesday on its Twitter-like Sina Weibo account that the verdict will be announced at 10 a.m. on Sunday, which will be a work day in China following a holiday.

In a sign of the event's importance and sensitivity, a hotel near the court that served as the venue for news conferences during Bo's trial is taking reservations only from accredited journalists through Monday, in an apparent effort to keep away members of the public, where Bo continues to command considerable support.

Security was tight during the five-day trial, but in a rare display of openness, the court regularly released chunks of the transcript, revealing a surprising amount of detail for such a major political trial. Legal analysts said the transparency was less a sign of legal reform than a desire by China's leadership to lend credibility to a process believed to have a foregone conclusion.

"The verdict may appear to be come from the court, but it is from the highest leadership," said Han Deqiang, an economist at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a staunch supporter of Bo. "If we simply go by the law of innocence until proven, he is clearly not guilty, but the prosecution presumed his guilt and there are other factors such as politics," Han said.

Bo, who was removed from office in March and expelled from the Communist Party in September, is the highest-ranking Chinese official to stand trial since former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu in 2008. Convicted of financial fraud, abuse of power and accepting bribery, Chen was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Chen did not appeal the court decision.

The corruption charges against Bo carry a possible penalty of death, but many observers believe he will not receive the maximum sentence.

Li Zhuang, a Beijing-lawyer who was jailed in Chongqing under Bo's rule and who has been closely following Bo's case, said Bo would be sentenced to at least 20 years in jail given the charges against him. Given Bo's spirited defence in the trial, he is likely to try to appeal any guilty verdict, Li said.

Prosecutors accused Bo of netting $4.3 million through embezzlement facilitated by his wife, Gu Kailai, and through bribes given to his family by a businessman, including a French villa, expenses-paid vacations and fancy delicacies such as abalone. He also was accused of interfering in the investigation into Gu, who was convicted of murdering Heywood in a separate trial last year.

During court testimony, Bo denounced the prosecution's key witnesses — including his wife and his former police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun. Bo said his wife was crazy and that Wang was dishonest, while portraying himself as a well-intentioned official too busy to closely scrutinize the people in his inner circle. Gu testified that Bo knew about the bribes because she told him about them.

Prosecutors said Bo's crimes were "extremely grave" and urged the court to hand out a severe punishment given that Bo refused to admit guilt.

"It was very clear that the prosecutors said there was no ground for leniency," Li said.

Li Xiaolin, another prominent Beijing lawyer, said Bo is likely to be sentenced to 15 years in prison and that he may not bother with an appeal.

"What's the use of appealing? It would be futile," Li said. "But he may issue some statement."

The scandal began to unfold in February 2012 when Wang — after having a fallout with Bo — fled to a U.S. consulate with information about the Heywood murder and unsuccessfully sought political refuge in a severe breach of Communist Party rules. Heywood's death initially had been ruled as due to excessive drinking, and Britain later demanded a renewed investigation, sparking an international diplomatic incident for the Chinese leadership.

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