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China's Bo to plead guilty, but maybe not to all charges: sources

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends a session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Co
China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends a session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Co

By Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - Disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai has agreed to plead guilty at a trial likely to be held within weeks, three sources said, in an apparent bid to earn a more lenient sentence and allow authorities to close the door on the country's biggest political scandal in decades.

But it was not clear if he would plead guilty to all or only some of the charges of accepting bribes, corruption and abuse of power.

Bo's downfall is the country's most divisive political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

President Xi Jinping is keen for Bo's trial to go off smoothly as he pushes major economic reforms ahead of a closed-door party plenum in September or October where he will need unstinted support from the party.

Reuters reported in February that Bo, one of the Communist Party's high-flyers who fell from grace in early 2012, had refused to cooperate with government investigators, staged a hunger strike twice and refused to shave his beard in protest against what he deemed unfair treatment.

"Bo Xilai had initially refused to admit guilt and insisted on defending himself," said a source with ties to the leadership and direct knowledge of the matter, requesting anonymity due to the political sensitivity of the case.

"But in a change of heart, he cooperated and will plead guilty (at his trial) in the hope that he will receive a relatively lenient sentence," the source told Reuters.

It remains to be seen if his decision to plead guilty will hold until the trial.

In China, defendants are presumed guilty until proven innocent and those who refuse to cooperate are often given harsher sentences.

Other sources indicated Bo may not plead guilty to the abuse of power charge.

A source close to the family, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bo will plead guilty, but should not be held accountable for crimes committed by immediate family members. The source declined to elaborate.

The abuse of power charge is believed to be linked to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, when Bo was the party chief in sprawling Chongqing city.

Gu was convicted of the murder last August and Bo's police chief, Wang Lijun, was jailed for trying to cover up the crime.

A third source, also with ties to China's leadership, said Bo will plead guilty to accepting bribes and corruption while he was mayor and Communist Party boss of the northeastern city of Dalian between 1992 and 2000.

But Bo will deny the charge of abuse of power when he was party boss of Chongqing, the source added.

"By pleading not guilty to the abuse of power charge, Bo wants to show that he is a victim of a power struggle," the source told Reuters, also requesting anonymity. The source did not elaborate.

After his appointment as party boss of Chongqing in 2007, Bo turned the region into a showcase of revolution-inspired "red" culture, as well as state led economic growth. He also won national attention with a crackdown on organized crime.

Bo's populist ways and crime clean-up were welcomed by many of Chongqing's 30 million residents, as well as others who hoped Bo could take his Maoist policies nationwide. But his ambition and brash self-promotion irked some top leaders.

Bo's lawyers Li Guifang and Wang Zhaofeng did not answer telephone calls seeking comment on what his strategy will be at the trial.

He will be represented in court by his family-appointed lawyer Li, as opposed to having a state-appointed attorney forced upon him as happened to his wife, a fourth source with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Bill Powell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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