Ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who is accused of corruption, will be represented by two Beijing-based attorneys from a large Chinese law firm that enjoys national prestige — and close ties to the ruling Communist Party.
Bo was once a high-flying contender for a top post until a scandal surrounding his wife's murder of a British businessman was exposed last year, embarrassing the party and disrupting its preparations for a pivotal leadership transition.
The outcome of Bo's case is widely assumed to be already decided by party leadership, but the appointment of prominent, though government-friendly, defense counsel could indicate the party's desire for the proceedings to appear legitimate.
Attorney Li Guifang said he and colleague Wang Zhaofeng of the DeHeng Law Offices will represent Bo.
"The case is still being investigated ... an indictment has not yet been issued," Li said in a telephone interview before declining to answer further questions.
The party expelled Bo on Sept. 28 and accused him of wrongdoing ranging from corruption to illicit sexual affairs. The party's leadership handover went smoothly in November with the ushering in of a new generation of party leaders, but Bo's case has not yet been resolved, leading to unverified speculation that he could stand trial before China holds annual legislative sessions this March in which the new party leaders will be formally appointed to government positions.
He Weifang, a Peking University law professor, said Li is a distinguished lawyer with a strong understanding of criminal law and procedure. But, He said, in a highly politicized case such as Bo's, the lawyer's skills may be inconsequential as the outcome of the case is likely predetermined by party leaders.
"The most troublesome question is whether the lawyer has independence," He said. "If the trial itself is a political show, not a genuine trial, then there is not a big difference who is appointed his lawyer."
DeHeng is well-known in the Chinese legal community as one of the country's largest firms, with branches in major cities as well as overseas. On its website, the firm says it has had good relations with large state enterprises and government departments, providing legal services in projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and acting as advisers to the finance and health ministries.
The firm also enjoys favorable standing with the party leadership: China's newly appointed party leader, Xi Jinping, visited the firm's office in Beijing in 2010 and praised its efforts in promoting party ideology within its ranks, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency at the time.
The firm's director, Wang Li, was among a group of experts from various fields who were invited to the coastal resort of Beidaihe for summer holidays last year and met with Xi. Wang appears to be a staunch party loyalist, saying in 2011 in remarks carried by the Legal Daily newspaper that lawyers in her firm need to uphold the leadership of the party.
A brief biography of Bo's lawyer Li on the firm's website describes his specialty as dispute resolution, but notes also that he is the deputy head of the criminal defense committee of the All China Lawyers' Association, China's government-controlled bar association. In a speech last year reported by a Chinese legal website, Li emphasized the importance of basing legal arguments on evidence.
"Do not attempt to win the defense with strong style, but convince people with down-to-earth legal facts and evidence. In a word, you must win with reasoning and proof," Li was paraphrased as saying.