By Sui-Lee Wee and Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - A former Chinese mining magnate with links to the eldest son of retired security tsar Zhou Yongkang went on trial on Monday over charges including murder after being accused of leading a 36-member gang on a crime spree spanning two decades.
Liu Han, the former chairman of unlisted Hanlong Group and once ranked the 230th richest person in China, faced trial in central Hubei province along with the other members of his "mafia-style" gang, state news agency Xinhua said.
Xinhua said Liu, who was arrested last year, was facing charges ranging from murder to gun-running and extortion for crimes carried out in southwestern Sichuan province. His gang was responsible for nine murders, Xinhua said, without giving details.
Two sources said Liu was also a business partner of Zhou Bin, the eldest son of Zhou Yongkang, who is at the center of China's biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades.
Those 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.
"Liu Han was very close to Zhou Bin. They were business partners," said one of the sources, who has ties to the Chinese leadership.
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 media have not directly linked Liu's case to Zhou Yongkang, but have alluded to possible ties since the mining baron's rise coincided with Zhou's time as Sichuan's Communist Party boss.
Liu's lawyer, Zhang Qingsong, could not be reached for comment. Zhang's secretary, Liu Jiebin, told Reuters by telephone that he would not accept interviews before the trial ended, adding the hearing could last for two weeks.
A court official in the province of Hubei said updates on the trial in the city of Xianning would be published on the court's microblog account. It was not clear why the charges were laid in Hubei, although some of the crimes were suspected of having been committed there, Xinhua said.
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.
Zhou rose through the ranks of China's oil and gas sector before joining the elite Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, where as domestic security chief his budget exceeded defense spending. He retired in 2012.
APPARENT DOUBLE LIFE
Reuters also was unable to reach Hanlong Group for comment on Liu, who headed a company that had global ambitions in the mining sector.
The company, which is based in Sichuan, made headlines when it tried to take over Australia's Sundance Resources Ltd. Its proposed A$1.4-billion ($1.29 billion) deal for Sundance, a West Africa-focused iron ore explorer, was called off a year ago after Hanlong missed funding deadlines.
Hanlong still has a majority stake in Australian-listed iron ore miner Moly Mines and remains the biggest shareholder of Sundance Resources. Hanlong has never commented on Liu's arrest.
Police last year launched an investigation into Liu and his younger brother Liu Yong - also known as Liu Wei - on suspicion of criminal activities, official media has said.
Prosecutors in Hubei said the two set up the gang in 1993, along with 34 others, and it "carried out a vast number of criminal activities".
"The ring, allegedly led by former mining tycoon Liu Han and his brother Liu Wei in southwest China's Sichuan province, is the largest mafia-style criminal group under trial in recent years in the country," Xinhua said.
The probe into Liu 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.
The police investigation into the activities of Liu and his associates eventually covered more than 10 provinces and cities, including Beijing, Xinhua has previously said.
Liu founded Hanlong Group, a conglomerate spanning solar energy to real estate and infrastructure, in 1997.
($1=6.21 yuan, 1.08 Australian dollars)
(This version of the story corrects spelling of secretary's name to Jiebin in paragraph 10)
(Editing by Dean Yates)