A Chinese court on Monday handed the wife of disgraced political leader Bo Xilai a suspended death sentence for murder in a case that has rocked the Communist party ahead of a 10-yearly power handover.
Gu Kailai was found guilty of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood, a crime she had confessed to, and given the death penalty with two years’ reprieve, court official Tang Yigan told reporters after a brief hearing.
Zhang Xiaojun, an employee of the Bo family charged with helping Gu to poison Heywood, was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in jail while four police officers were convicted of attempting to cover up the murder.
Tang said the court had suspended Gu’s death sentence because she suffered from psychological problems, and because Heywood had threatened her son, but he gave no indication of how long she would serve.
Suspended death sentences are typically commuted to life in prison in China, but the actual length of time served varies.
The law states that a death sentence for murder cannot be commuted to less than 20 years in jail, but legal experts say there have been cases where the courts have ordered shorter sentences.
Gu confessed during her trial this month in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei to killing 41-year-old Heywood by pouring poison down his throat, saying that he had threatened her son after a business deal went sour.
The case brought down her husband Bo, a charismatic but divisive politician, and exposed deep divisions in the ruling Communist party before a generational handover of power due to start later this year.
Bo had been tipped for promotion to the elite group of Communist party leaders that effectively rules China until the allegations against his wife burst into the open, but is now under investigation for corruption.
Even before the hearing began state news agency Xinhua had said the evidence against Gu was “irrefutable,” leading many analysts and media commentators to question whether she would be given a fair trial.
“We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible,” Britain’s embassy in Beijing said in a statement.
“We consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied.”
Two British diplomats attended Gu’s trial – a rare concession in China, where trials involving high-profile political figures are often held in secret.
Political analysts say leaders are eager to draw a line under the controversy, although Monday’s verdict will likely shift the spotlight back to Bo, who has not been seen since April and is thought to be under house arrest.
Bo enjoyed strong public support during his tenure as party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing for a tough anti-corruption drive, but his Maoist-style “red revival” campaign alienated moderates in the Communist party.
He also flouted convention by openly lobbying for a spot in the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief who first raised questions over Heywood’s death when he fled to a US consulate in February, is also expected to face trial, but it remains unclear whether Bo himself will be implicated.
Sources who attended Gu’s trial say that there was no reference to Bo, and a lengthy account of the trial issued by Xinhua a day after the seven-hour hearing also made no mention of him.
Xinhua said Gu invited Heywood to Chongqing for a meeting last November, plied him with wine until he became drunk and then poured cyanide mixed with water into his mouth.
The report said she acted after Heywood threatened the couple’s 24-year-old son, Bo Guagua, although it did not say what the threats were.
“The story tries to make it look like simply a private matter engineered by Gu without the knowledge, participation or cover-up of her husband,” Jerome Cohen, a specialist in Chinese law at New York University, told AFP.
“The judiciary is told what to do by the party in cases of importance, like this one,” he added.
[image via Agence France-Presse]