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China law confab canceled amid sensitive period

Authorities in Beijing forced the cancellation Saturday of a major conference on legal protection for private industry amid heightened sensitivity over the country's biggest political scandal in years, organizers said.

A leading Beijing lawyer said legal authorities in the capital called him Saturday to demand the two-day event to be held in a hotel in the western city of Xi'an be called off. The conference had been expected to draw as many as 400 lawyers, academics, economists, and leading entrepreneurs, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"This conference was too much for them," said the lawyer, who declined to reveal specifically which officials had called him. Other lawyers listed as participating also said authorities had ordered it canceled, but asked that they and their firms not be identified by name.

The cancellation comes just weeks after one of China's most powerful politicians, Bo Xilai, was suspended from his Communist Party posts following an attempted defection by one of his former top aides, who is now in the custody of state investigators.

Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and a family helper were at the same time named as suspects in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who was discovered dead in his room at a secluded mountaintop hotel on the outskirts of the mega-city of Chongqing, where Bo had reined supreme since 2007.

The party hasn't named what malfeasance Bo is suspected of, although there have been numerous unconfirmed reports of corruption and abuse of authority. Bo is also accused by legal scholars of violating human rights and ignoring legal procedure in ordering a crackdown on organized crime that targeted property developers and other private businessmen.

The lawyers for some of those convicted in the crackdown were scheduled to attend the Xi'an conference, possibly triggering the order to cancel. They have complained that their clients were tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit and their assets seized illegally and divided among Chongqing officials.

Bo's sacking and possible prosecution has set off a wave of speculation over the political future of high-ranking communist allies ahead of a once-in-a-generation transfer of power to a new generation of leaders this fall.

China's communists exercise strict control over the courts, prosecutors, and police and the outcomes of most criminal cases are decided behind closed doors, well before a formal verdict is arrived at or the trial even begun.

Lawyers who take on sensitive cases can suffer harassment, disbarment, and even imprisonment.

Police and government officials in Xi'an said they had no information on the conference since it had been privately organized.

Two people listed as contacts on the conference's Web page, Xu Wei and Lin Cong, said they had only helped organize it and had no information on the reason for the cancellation.

Staff at the business office of Xi'an's Kempinski Hotel where it was to be held said organizers merely told them it was canceled without giving a reason.

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