China says probe into disgraced security chief Zhou Yongkang could take time

BEIJING (REUTERS) - The investigation into China's former domestic security chief is expected to take a long time but the government is committed to releasing details to the public, a senior official said on Wednesday.

Zhou Yongkang is by far the highest-profile figure caught up in President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption. He is the most senior Chinese official to be ensnared in a graft scandal since the Communist Party took power in 1949.

There had been expectations that authorities would provide a public update about the case against Zhou last month at a meeting of members of the Communist Party elite to discuss legal reforms in the world's second-largest economy.

But the party has been largely silent on Zhou's fate since it first announced the probe in July.

Zhang Sujun, a deputy justice minister, said the investigation was still in the hands of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection - the party's anti-graft watchdog - in rare public comments on the case. "The investigation is still ongoing because we are going to review and investigate the case according to the law and also pay attention to evidence, so this process may be a long process, but also a more serious and responsible process," Zhang told a news conference. "I believe that once the relevant authorities have done their probe, they will definitely announce it to the public in an appropriate way via an appropriate channel." The question by a Reuters reporter on why the party is afraid of mentioning Zhou as well as Zhang's full remarks on Zhou were slightly altered in the official online transcript, underscoring sensitivities of the case.

Zhou's case sent shockwaves through the political establishment and served as a warning that Xi was serious about stamping out graft and willing to go after members of the elite such as Zhou, who had served on the party's Standing Committee, which is at the apex of state power.

Zhang reiterated Beijing's stance that the Zhou case"reflects equality before the law". "I think you should not worry, I can only say that this matter enhances confidence in the rule of law," Zhang said.

Last week, a senior party official said there was no mention of Zhou at a recent key meeting because he was no longer part of the central leadership.

Zhou was last seen in public more than a year ago. It has not been possible to contact him for comment and it is unclear if he has a lawyer.

Corruption investigations into Chinese officials are generally conducted first by the party's anti-graft watchdog, before being transferred to legal authorities for trial.

The party uses a secretive detention system for its members called "shuanggui" to weed out corrupt members. Detentions can last indefinitely, with family members often kept in the dark about the fate of their loved ones.