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'Jackie Kennedy' of China focus of murder probe

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
July 27, 2012 -- Updated 0254 GMT (1054 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bo Xilai's wife Gu Kailai officially charged with murder
  • Former lawyer likened to 'Jackie Kennedy of China'
  • Former colleague describes her as 'charismatic and very funny'
  • Chinese police are investigating allegations she ordered killing of a British businessman

(CNN) -- As the drama surrounding one of the Chinese Communist Party's most high-profile politicians, Bo Xilai, unfolds with all the twists of a soap opera, attention has zoomed in again on his wife, Gu Kailai, the woman likened by some as the "Jackie Kennedy of China" and who is now officially charged with murder.

After months of swirling rumors over her alleged involvement in the death of her associate, British businessman Neil Heywood, state-run Xinhua announced Thursday that Gu and a family aide were charged with "intentional homicide" in a Hefei municipal court in Anhui province.

Gu and family aide Zhang Xiaojun had been "transferred to judicial authorities" on suspicion of having murdered Heywood, state media reported in April. Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing on November 15 last year.

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The official statement carried in April said Heywood and Gu had come into "conflict over economic interests" and the investigation appears to follow allegations made by former Chongqing municipal police chief, Wang Lijun, who remains under investigation by Chinese authorities for trying to defect to the U.S..

Bo's former right-hand man alleges that Heywood was poisoned on Gu's orders.

According to a report carried in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. lawyer Ed Byrne who worked with Gu Kailai several years ago, found it "mind-boggling" that the wife of Chongqing doyen Bo Xilai was now implicated in a murder.

Bo Xilai's wife held in Briton's death

Byrne met Gu 15 years ago when she turned up in Mobile, Alabama, to help him represent Chinese companies embroiled in a legal fight in the U.S. federal court.

"She was very sharp, and fortunately her English was very good," he said.

"I was very impressed with her. She is very attractive, very charismatic and very funny," Byrne told the BBC in an interview. "People likened her and her husband to the Jack and Jackie Kennedy of China. They were the modern liberal element there."

As a practicing lawyer who had studied at the prestigious Peking University, Gu helped plot out the winning legal strategy, Mr Byrne said. Gu later invited her legal team including Byrne back to China to entertain them in the port city of Dalian where her husband was the mayor.

In his last public appearance before he was ousted last month, Bo described his 53-year-old wife as a stay-at-home mom who gave up her legal career 20 years ago so that it would not clash with his political ambitions. However The Wall Street Journal says its investigation shows that Gu was still active in business activities in China, the U.S. and Britain over the past 20 years.

The report cited people close to the family who said she was active in a firm called Horas Consultancy & Investment, which advised clients wanting to do business in China.

Her inner circle included Heywood, an American businessman named Larry Cheng and French architect Patrick Henri Devillers, all of whom became close to the Bo family in Dalian and Beijing, the sources said.

She is very attractive, very charismatic and very funny
Ed Byrne

While Gu was described as a woman of drive and intellect with a penchant for self-promotion, sources said she became increasingly neurotic and depressed, suspecting people within her inner circle of betrayal.

Heywood reportedly told friends he feared for his safety after falling out with Ms. Gu.

Analysts say her future depends on the outcome of her husband's fall from grace, described by party insiders as the biggest political crisis since the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A spokesperson for the British Consulate-General in Chongqing told CNN that hoped Chinese authorities would resolve the case.

"We welcome the fact that the Chinese are investigating this case: indeed we had called for this to happen. We will await the conclusion of their investigations," the spokesperson said.

CNN's Alexis Lai contributed to this report.

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