As the deposed Communist Party leader Bo Xilai sits in prison awaiting criminal charges, friends say his family is struggling against Chinese government obstacles to help him prepare a legal defense.

Bo’s immediate family has been warned not to hire any lawyers, according to two people close to his wife’s family. And two lawyers retained by his mother-in-law on his behalf have been unable to visit the formerly powerful party chief, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

The new details about Bo’s legal struggles came amid a four-day meeting of the National People’s Congress, which is expected to strip him of his legal immunity and clear the way for criminal charges.

One of China’s most prominent politicians, Bo was a contender for a seat on the country’s ruling council before scandal derailed his career. His prospects appeared irreparably damaged when his wife, Gu Kailai, and a family aide were convicted this fall in the murder of a British businessman.

His spectacular downfall triggered the country’s biggest political scandal in two decades, and lingering questions about Bo’s fate have cast a pall over China’s once-a-decade leadership transition, scheduled for next month.

His whereabouts have been kept secret for months. But a family friend of Bo’s wife and a second person closely associated with Gu’s family believe that Bo is being held at Qincheng, a facility famous for its political prisoners.

The prison is an hour north of Beijing and has housed protesters from the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations as well as other purged leaders, most famously Mao Zedong’s widow.

Bo’s brothers and sisters have been instructed not to find lawyers for him, and Bo’s brothers have passed along the warning to his two sons, one living in the United States and the other in Hong Kong, according to the family friend.

But, the family associates said, Gu’s mother, Fan Chengxiu, retained two lawyers for him Oct. 6: Shen Zhigeng, who was hired to represent Gu at her murder trial two months ago, and Li Xiaolin, who was hired to represent Gu’s aide, Zhang Xiaojun, who was convicted and sentenced to prison in the Gu case.

In a brief phone interview, Li confirmed that he was hired to represent Bo by Bo’s mother-in-law but declined to go into detail. Reached separately, the second lawyer declined to comment.

According to others involved, the lawyers plan to go to Bo’s prison in coming days in a last-ditch effort to see him if authorities do not respond to their request for access to him.

Rejecting such face-to-face meetings has become a standard way for the Chinese government to thwart independent representation in politically sensitive cases that could embarrass the party.

When the nephew of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng was arrested this year, authorities told the family’s lawyers, without providing proof, that Chen’s nephew wanted to use a government-
appointed attorney instead. Bo’s wife was treated similarly at her murder trial last summer.

Authorities have also kept secret Gu’s location ever since she pleaded guilty to murder in August after proceedings that many Chinese and Western legal critics have likened to a show trial.

According to a prison document shown to Washington Post reporters, Gu was transferred Sept. 12 to a facility called Yancheng in Hebei province, on the outskirts of Beijing. The document — stamped with the Yancheng prison’s official red seal and dated Sept. 17 — was addressed to one of Gu’s sisters, Gu Zhengxie.

Yancheng is China’s only prison directly managed by the central Justice Ministry; all others are managed locally. The prison is rumored to be well furnished with everyday luxuries and, according to descriptions on the ministry’s Web site, is often used to house officials convicted of corruption and international prisoners.

The document could not be independently verified, but the family friend said Gu’s mother and sister tried to visit Gu upon receiving it. They were met by a deputy warden who refused their request, saying Gu first needed two months of “prisoner’s training.”

Relatives of Zhang, Gu’s aide, have been able to visit him since the trial, according to associates of Zhang’s family.

After the failed attempt to see Gu at Yancheng, her mother wrote a letter to China’s justice minister, Wu Aiying, the family friend said. As a former high official and the widow of a general in China’s army, Gu’s mother told the minister, she respected the discipline of the party but still pleaded for a chance to see her daughter.

Zhang Jie and Keith Richburg contributed to this report.