A Chinese court on Monday handed down a suspended death sentence for Gu Kailai, the wife of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai.
The widely expected outcome for Gu, who was found guilty earlier this month of killing a British businessman, will most likely mean a long prison term -- an outcome that both helps to calm one of the biggest political controversies to hit China in decades and avoid possible outcry over an execution. It's customary in Chinese law for such death sentences designated with two-year reprieves to be converted to incarceration after that period.
The official Xinhua newswire said in a report later in the day that while her “criminal offense was odious” the court took into consideration Gu’s mental condition – she’d previously been said to have been treated for depression, anxiety and paranoia in the past – as well as her cooperation after arrest. It noted that she will not be filing an appeal.
The verdict leaves open the far thornier question of how the Chinese Communist Party will handle Bo’s case. He was not mentioned during Gu’s seven-hour court deliberation on Aug. 9, and the only public pronouncement about his fate so far was an April state news item saying that Bo had been “involved in serious discipline violations.”
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Until the beginning of this year, Bo was widely considered a strong candidate for the nation’s Politburo Standing Committee, the apogee of power in China. The son of a Communist Party elder and the boss of the sprawling city of Chongqing, Bo’s political fortunes went into freefall after his former police chief fled to a U.S. consulate in February. That recently demoted police official, Wang Lijun, reportedly aired allegations that Gu had killed British businessman Neil Heywood in a Chongqing hotel room last November.
The case against Gu was seen as closely choreographed by the Communist Party. The timing of the proceedings, and the controversy surrounding Bo, is particularly sensitive given a change in the majority of standing committee seats slated for later this year in a once in a decade transition of power.
On Monday, the court also sentenced four Chongqing police officials to between five and 11 years for helping cover up the crime, which was reported at the time as being related to alcohol. But it remained unclear whether the state intends to build a case demonstrating a chain of command reaching up to Bo.
Wang Lijun, the former police chief, is expected to stand trial soon, though the charges against him have not been announced.
Prosecutors in the eastern province of Anhui said that 53-year-old Gu murdered Heywood after a feud over a land project, for which Heywood was to act as a proxy for Gu. When the deal went bad, the prosecution said, Heywood, 41, demanded a large payout; arguing with Gu and threatening her son via e-mail. The court cited Gu’s concerns about a perceived danger to her son, Bo Guagua, as a motive.
Nonetheless, Heywood then accepted Gu’s invitation to travel from Beijing to Chongqing last November and drank heavily with her in a room at the city’s Lucky Holiday Hotel as a family orderly, Zhang Xiaojun, waited outside, according to testimony filed by prosecutors. After Heywood became drunk and fell in the bathroom, Zhang is alleged to have brought in a bottle of a cyanide compound that Gu then poured into Heywood’s mouth.
Left unexplained was why Heywood would have traveled to Chongqing, a city that Gu’s husband then ruled with near-absolute power as Communist Party secretary, after threatening Gu and her son. Having done business in China for years, Heywood would likely have known that doing so would be a dangerous proposition.
Zhang, the orderly, received a nine-year sentence on Monday. He also will not be appealing, Xinhua reported.
After the trial earlier this month, the state Xinhua newswire quoted Gu as having confessed to the crime and telling the court that, “The case has produced great losses to the Party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease. I am grateful to the humanitarian care shown to me by those who handled the case. I solemnly tell the court that in order to maintain the dignity of the law, I will accept and calmly face any sentence and I also expect a fair and just court decision.”
Wang Lijun, the former police chief who fled to the U.S. consulate in February, is expected to stand trial soon, though the charges against him have not been announced.