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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In China, the downfall of an ambitious politician has exposed a bitter power struggle in the Chinese leadership. Bo Xilai became famous for fighting organized crime, but now he's been fired.

And as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, some victims of his clampdown are telling their stories.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Three weeks ago, businessman Zhang Mingyu was kidnapped. He was in his apartment in Beijing when police officers from another city, Chongqing, took him away.

ZHANG MINGYU: (Through translator) They didn't let me contact my lawyer or use my cell phone. We drove 23 hours to Chongqing. More than 10 people watched me day and night

LIM: Zhang Mingyu had been threatening to expose information about Wang Lijun, the former head of Chongqing police, who'd fled to the U.S. consulate apparently seeking shelter. But someone wanted to keep Zhang Mingyu quiet. For a week, he was held incommunicado in Chongqing. One day after he was released, Chongqing's Party Secretary Bo Xilai was sacked. Zhang is scathing about Bo's much-vaunted campaign against organized crime, nicknamed smashing the black.

MINGYU: (Through translator) The mafia crackdown was definitely selective. It was done to maintain the authority of the people who cracked down on the gangsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: This song about smashing the black illustrates Bo Xilai's other main initiative - singing the red or mobilizing the masses to sing patriotic songs. During the mafia crackdown, 13 people were executed, almost 5,000 arrested. But suspects' rights were often completely ignored, according to lawyer Li Zhuang, who represented an alleged gang member.

LI ZHUANG: (Through translator) The anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing wasn't based on the rule of law. It was an anti-mafia campaign for political purposes. It overrode the law and it even violated basic human morality.

LIM: When Li Zhuang first met his client, Gong Gangmo, Gong told him he'd been tortured by Chongqing police sporadically over a period of eight days and nights. Li Zhuang repeats some of the details.

ZHUANG: (Through translator) They hung him from the ceiling so he could touch a table with his toes, but he couldn't put his heels down. He was hanging for a long time, so he soiled himself. An interrogator took him down and ordered him to clean up the mess with his hands, and wipe the floor with his shorts. Then they hung him up again naked.

LIM: Li used this in his clients defense, alleging his confession was forced by torture. But then Li himself was detained on charges of fabricating evidence and inciting witnesses. His client, Gong Gangmo, got a life sentence. Li, meanwhile, was in police detention.

ZHUANG: (Through translator) For three days and three nights, I was locked into a chair with a board over the lap so I couldn't move. They didn't beat me, but they didn't let me sleep.

LIM: It took only 18 days for him to be put on trial - a record, he says, in China. Li was sentenced to two and a half years, which was later reduced to one-and-a-half years. He was released last June. He believes his arrest was designed to send a message.

ZHUANG: (Through translator) It was a warning to all the lawyers in China. We're cracking down on the mafia here, no one must come here. They made all of China's lawyers so scared, no one dared speak out.

BO XILAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Bo Xilai himself shrugged off allegations of wrongdoing. Li only got a couple of years, he told reporters airily, much shorter than those mafia sentences. But less than two weeks ago, Bo was sacked. His disgraced police chief has already been replaced. And 38 of the city's top prosecutors have been reshuffled. Questions have also emerged about the mysterious death of a British businessman in Chongqing, with links to Bo's family. Li expects more fallout.

ZHUANG: (Through translator) I get these calls every day from the relatives of those in prison. I say, why didn't you call before? I simply didn't dare. In the past, if your relatives appealed for justice, they'd also be detained or sent to labor camp. Now it's all coming out.

LIM: Li Zhuang comments that, to his knowledge, all those sentenced in the crackdown against organized crime had all their assets confiscated, providing a windfall for the state. Online, many are asking if Chongqing saw a crackdown on the mafia or a crackdown by a mafia state.

Bo once hoped Chongqing could serve as a model for the rest of China. In fact, his victims' tales of abuse and torture paint an extraordinary picture of a state-within-a-state, where China's laws were simply ignored.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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