BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese prosecutors charged former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang with bribery, abuse of power and intentional disclosure of state secrets on Friday, paving the way for a trial that could expose the inner workings of the ruling Communist Party.
Zhou, 72, is the most senior Chinese official to be ensnared in a graft scandal since the party swept to power in 1949. The decision to prosecute Zhou underscores President Xi Jinping's commitment to fighting graft at the highest levels.
The indictment accused Zhou of "taking advantage of his position to seek benefits for others", "illegally accepting other people's huge assets", "abuse of power" and "causing heavy losses to public property, the state and the people", China's top prosecutor, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, said in a statement on its website.
"The impact on society is vile, the circumstances are especially serious," the agency said, without giving specific details of the charges.
Zhou's alleged crimes took place over decades, including when he was deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), party boss in southwestern Sichuan province, minister of public security and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the statement said.
Zhou had been informed of his legal rights and listened to the views of his lawyer, the statement added, without saying where Zhou, who has not been seen in public since October 2013, was being detained.
No date was given for Zhou's trial, but state media said last month that China would hold an "open trial" in an attempt to show transparency. Legal experts say, however, the party runs the risk of Zhou threatening to reveal state secrets.
His case was transferred on Friday to a court in the northern city of Tianjin, not far from Beijing, according to prosecutors.
Zhang Sizhi, the lawyer who defended Mao Zedong's widow Jiang Qing, said Tianjin would have been chosen because it has no obvious connection to Zhou, to ensure the impartiality of the judge. Jiang was tried in China's last major show trial in 1980 and given a suspended death sentence for the deaths of tens of thousands during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
"The trial could start quite soon, perhaps in a month or so," Zhang said, judging by legal precedent. "The government will be hoping that by giving him a trial like this it will help with their efforts to boost the rule of law."
Zhou was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee - China's apex of power - and held the post of security tsar until he retired in 2012.
He also built an extensive power base at oil giant CNPC, as he rose to the top of the company in the 1990s. At least a dozen former top managers at CNPC have been arrested as part of the crackdown on graft.
Last year, China said it had arrested Zhou and expelled him from the party, accusing him of crimes ranging from accepting bribes to leaking state secrets.
In ordering the investigation, Xi has broken with an unwritten understanding that members of the Politburo Standing Committee would not come under such scrutiny after retirement.
The move suggests Xi's anti-corruption crackdown - he has promised to go after "tigers", or senior officials, as well as those of lower rank - has much further to run.
The government's corruption fight has extended to almost every corner of the country, including powerful state-owned companies which dominate sectors of the economy such as energy, banking and telecommunications.
Retired legislators and lawyers have said many of the previous abuses to the rule of law in China can be attributed to Zhou, who expanded his role into one of the most powerful and controversial fiefdoms in the one-party government.
Sources with ties to the Chinese leadership have previously told Reuters that Xi has been determined to bring down Zhou for allegedly plotting appointments to retain influence ahead of the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, when Xi took over the party.
Zhou joined the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 while also heading the central Political and Legal Affairs Committee, a sprawling body that oversees law-and-order policy. The security apparatus he ran expanded during his watch and consumed a budget that exceeded the official figure for military spending. He quickly earned the enmity of Chinese dissidents.
The investigation into Zhou shows that Xi, who became president in March 2013, has consolidated power and has the confidence to manage any internal rift that may ensue, experts have said.
Editing by Dean Yates