By Michael Martina and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China holds its most sensational trial this week since convicting the Gang of Four over 30 years ago, putting Gu Kailai, the wife of deposed leader Bo Xilai, in the dock for murder.
It took two months for the widow of Chairman Mao Zedong and three other ultra-leftist leaders to be found guilty of excesses in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution after a show trial.
Gu, a career lawyer who has championed China's swift, unblinking justice system, is likely to be dealt with even sooner.
Legal experts and activists expect her to receive the kind of rapid guilty verdict handed down in almost all Chinese criminal trials - the kind Gu once compared favorably to the United States where she felt the guilty risked going free on legal technicalities.
"As long as it is known that you, John Doe, killed someone, you will be arrested, tried and shot to death," Gu wrote of Chinese criminal justice in a 1998 book.
Chinese law, she explained, did "not mince words".
Now Gu finds herself on the other side of Chinese law in a case that experts say is hardly likely to show any signs of judicial reform.
The trial will open on Thursday in the gritty and poor eastern Chinese city of Hefei, a court official said. In keeping with the Communist Party's secretive nature, the date has still not publicly been announced.
Gu faces the death penalty if found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last November, but may be let off with a stiff jail sentence.
That would follow the pattern set by the trial of the Gang of Four, in which Mao's widow Jiang Qing and one of her henchmen were given death sentences that were later commuted to life imprisonment. The other two were also jailed for long periods.
In Gu's case, the scandalous nature of a crime involving foreigners and her husband's fall from a senior Communist Party position means the verdict, and the sentence, is almost certainly pre-decided.
"It simply cuts too close to core issues of internal (Communist) Party politics and the handover of power," said Carl Minzner, a Chinese law expert at New York's Fordham University School of Law, casting Gu's trial as part of a political campaign against her husband, once seen as a candidate to join China's next top leadership team to be unveiled late this year.
"These are the very last areas we should expect any willingness (from Beijing) to play by legal norms."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has demanded Beijing live up to its judicial rhetoric in the Gu case, calling in April for "a full investigation that observes due process, is free from political interference, exposes the truth behind this tragic case, and ensures that justice is done".
'AN OBVIOUS FARCE'
Experts say London is bound to be disappointed. They point out that the signs so far are that the trial against Gu and her alleged accomplice, family aide Zhang Xiaojun, will be a formality with only the severity of the sentence in any doubt.
Gu will not have access to her family lawyer, Shen Zhigeng, who has said other lawyers have been assigned to her case.
China's official Xinhua news agency has already said the evidence against Gu will be "irrefutable and substantial" when the case goes to court.
"It makes the case a transparent sham," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. "If you forbid people to have the best lawyer they can and you assign lawyers who you control ... it renders the whole thing an obvious farce."
Both Bo, who was party chief in the teeming southwestern city of Chongqing, and Gu have been in detention since Beijing first announced the murder allegation against Gu and the unspecified "disciplinary violations" against Bo in April.
At the time, Bo was stripped of all party positions. Neither he nor his wife have been able to publicly comment on the allegations.
Bo has not been named as a suspect in the murder case, but he is separately under investigation by party authorities and could also face trial at a later time.
Hefei, far from Chongqing, has deliberately been chosen for Gu's trial -- a decision in keeping with a tradition of holding politically charged trials in a different judicial region.
Despite the track record of China's criminal justice system - its courts answer first to the party, almost never side with defendants and have never ruled in favor of dissidents - it has sometimes raised hopes for genuine reform.
Beijing appeared to offer some encouragement to reformers in the 1990s with a promise to "rule the country according to law". Late in the decade, it added the principle to the constitution, though it still recognized the party as supreme arbiter.
In 2003, it abolished "custody and repatriation" powers, a form of arbitrary detention once used by local governments to sweep homeless and other undesirables from the streets.
Emboldened, some legal activists began to test the government's rhetoric on the rule of law, launching cases against the authorities on behalf of ordinary aggrieved citizens - but they quickly found nothing much had actually changed.
RULE OF LAW RETHINK
Blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who made headlines in April with his escape from house arrest and his flight to the United States, recalls his own 2006 trial for whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property - charges he says were trumped up to stop him advocating for the disabled, farmers and women forced to undergo abortions under China's one-child policy.
Chen too was deprived of his lawyer and was forcibly represented by two state-appointed counsel.
"In the courtroom, to all the unfounded accusations by the prosecution, the two lawyers would only respond, 'We have no objection'," Chen said by phone from New York where he is furthering his legal studies.
Minzner, of Fordham University, said any genuine party interest in the rule of law evaporated from around 2003 as the government realized it posed a threat to one-party rule.
"A combination of political and practical concerns came together to lead central authorities to rethink it - how far do we really want to go down this track?" he said.
For Chen Guangcheng, genuine rule of law would challenge the party's grip on power, though he also believes long-term political stability cannot be assured without it.
"If there was truly the rule of law in the first place, power should be returned to the people. There would be no way for them to hold on to power," Chen said.
As ever in China, there is a pithy phrase to sum up Chinese justice.
"You will have heard the saying 'the police cooks the food, the prosecutor serves it and the court eats it'," said Eva Pils, a law expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp