By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - The curtain may be about to fall on China's disgraced leader Bo Xilai, but victims of the harsh brand of justice he handed out in a high-profile crime crackdown are not making any headway in their campaign for redress.
Lawyers estimate there are thousands of cases demanding restitution in the foggy southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, which Bo ruled as Communist Party boss until he was dramatically sacked early last year amid lurid allegations of graft and murder.
Bo is to stand trial from Thursday and his police chief and his wife have already been jailed over the scandal stemming from the November 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
But despite the official repudiation of Bo's tactics in Chongqing, China has shown little appetite to follow or publicize cases brought by the victims of his crackdown, largely because it could focus unwanted public attention on how the Communist Party operates.
Critics say Bo was simply doing what other party leaders were doing elsewhere, and continue to do - using courts, prosecutors and police to enforce their will. Openly vindicating Bo's victims could open a can of worms, they said.
"Bo Xilai was a leader in the party and the government, and didn't he interfere with the law? They (the government) don't want to give people a pretext to find fault with them," said Liu Yang, an attorney who published an open letter last year urging fellow lawyers to form a team to review criminal cases in Chongqing.
More than 4,000 people were arrested during Bo's much-heralded campaign against organized crime, launched in 2009, according to state media, though the government has never released figures for the number jailed.
Bo won national attention with his "strike the black" offensive, but critics have said it involved abuses such as torture and the jailing of innocent people.
As the appeals by Bo's victims mount, their demands for justice are emerging as a potent challenge for the government, already struggling to contain the consequences of the politically divisive case that has exposed rifts within Chinese society.
"When I defend my clients in court, I cite a Chinese proverb: 'one miscarriage of justice will lead to three generations of hatred'," Liu said.
"The wounds that have been borne by these miscarriages of justice, they'll never forget."
Before his dramatic fall last year, Bo was set to join the upper ranks of China's leadership. But his rise was stopped by a murder scandal involving his wife, Gu Kailai, and his former police chief, Wang Lijun. Both Gu and Wang have since been jailed.
Bo is set to stand trial on charges of bribery and abuse of power in the eastern city of Jinan and is almost certain to be found guilty.
Liu said the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice told him to disband his organization to offer legal services to families in Chongqing just three days after he had published his open letter. Officials at the bureau could not be reached for comment.
According to Liu, the officials told him at a meeting: "At first, we approved of your action - it is motivated out of goodwill - but because you are not in line with policies of the central government, and your information isn't the same as that of the decision-makers, so we're afraid your work may sometimes affect the stability and unity that we have".
After his appointment as party boss of Chongqing in 2007, Bo turned the region into a showcase of revolution-inspired Maoist "red" culture, as well as state-led economic growth.
Bo's populist ways were welcomed by many of Chongqing's 30 million residents. But critics said the anti-crime campaign trampled rudimentary legal safeguards and was used to weed out people who Bo and Wang disliked.
During Bo's anti-crime drive, Chongqing police held thousands of suspects and prosecuted dozens of businessmen and women and officials accused of extortion, graft or running syndicates to protect rackets and prostitution.
One of the reasons petitions for redress are blocked is that judges and prosecutors in Chongqing who have ruled on these allegedly wrongful convictions are still in office. The Chongqing government could not be reached for comment.
"Several prosecutors who handled the wrongful convictions are still in their positions in court, so to ask that they correct their own mistakes, that's somewhat difficult," said Chen Youxi, a lawyer who is representing two clients who say they were wrongfully convicted.
LARGE VOLUME OF CASES
Li Zhuang, a former lawyer and outspoken critic of Bo, said he is giving legal advice to more than a dozen people hoping to seek redress for their jailed relatives.
"If it's one or two cases, it's easy to handle, but when the volume is too large, what can you do?" Li said. "The government is now probably in a bind about this."
Li is himself appealing a conviction on charges of persuading a client to commit perjury. He was sentenced to a two and a half years in jail in early 2010 after vigorously defending a client on trial in Chongqing's anti-gang campaign.
Others caught in Bo's dragnet included critics such as Gao Yingpu, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2010 on a charge of "inciting subversion of state power" after he criticized Bo's crackdown on organized crime.
Earlier this year, Gao appealed to have his name cleared, said a source with direct knowledge of his situation. The source declined to be named for fear of retribution.
The authorities have not responded to Gao, who was released in January after his sentence was cut by six months, according to the source.
Among the people persecuted during Bo's time, a large proportion were policemen. More than 5,600 police officers were punished by Wang over three years, Chinese media reported.
Family members say Wang wanted to remove officers he thought were loyal to the city's former justice chief and deputy police chief, Wen Qiang, who was executed in 2010 for protecting gangs, accepting bribes, rape and property scams.
One typical case was that of a 50-year-old police officer sentenced to 17 years in prison for accepting bribes and protecting gangs. His lawyer, Chi Susheng, said her client was targeted by Wang because he had worked for Wen and maintains that the charges are fabricated.
During his questioning, the police officer said he endured beatings, nine days of sleep deprivation and other torture to force him to confess to a crime he did not commit, according to his wife, who asked that the names of her and her husband not be disclosed. Now in prison, the police officer is depressed, she said.
"We will probably appeal for our entire lifetimes, until the day we die," said his wife.
When asked about the prospects for Bo's trial, she said: "I think even if there are loopholes in the law, God will not tolerate him.
"Heaven is watching, I believe he will not meet a good end."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)