BEIJING (Reuters) - A former Chinese mining magnate with suspected links to the eldest son of retired security tsar Zhou Yongkang has denied leading a 36-member gang on a crime spree of murder and gun-running over the past two decades.
Liu Han, the former chairman of unlisted Hanlong Group and once ranked the 230th richest person in China, went on trial on Monday in central Hubei province along with the other members of his "mafia-style" gang.
The probe marks one of the highest-profile cases against a private businessman since President Xi Jinping took power last year, vowing to crack down on corruption.
Liu, who was arrested last year, faces charges ranging from extortion and murder to gun-running, carried out in southwestern Sichuan province. His gang is accused of nine murders.
Two sources told Reuters that Liu was also a business partner of Zhou Bin, the eldest son of Zhou Yongkang, who is at the centre of China's biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades.
"The defendant Liu Han questioned the evidence presented against him by prosecutors," the Xianning Intermediate Court said in an account of the proceedings released on its microblog late on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Liu denied leading a gang, according to the court.
Liu told the court that many of the alleged gangsters are his own or his family's drivers, according to state media.
He said that even though he knew nothing about the murder cases, he was sorry for the victims and their family members, adding that he wished to compensate the victims' families "out of sympathy and humanity", according to state media reports.
Liu said he had not killed anybody and denied prosecutors' allegations that he held and traded guns illegally, the reports added.
Two sources, who have been briefed on Zhou's investigation, told Reuters over the weekend that authorities had seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) from family members and associates of the elder Zhou.
They said Liu was among those whose assets had been seized, adding he was also among more than 300 associates and family members of Zhou who had been arrested, detained or questioned in recent months as part of the investigation.
The sources, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to the foreign media about elite politics, gave no further details. But the respected Chinese magazine Caixin in February said Liu and Zhou Bin collaborated in power generation and tourism in Sichuan.
Official accounts of the court proceedings have yet to mention Zhou Bin, or his father.
The elder Zhou has been under virtual house arrest since authorities began formally investigating him late last year while his son has been arrested, sources have previously told Reuters.
The government has yet to make any official statement about Zhou Yongkang or the case against him and it has not been possible to contact Zhou, his family, associates or staff for comment. It is not clear if any of them have lawyers.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee)