China sentenced the wife of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chongqing secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來) to death yesterday, but suspended her execution, setting the stage for a possible final purge of Bo in a scandal that has shaken Beijing ahead of a leadership transition.
The sentence means Gu Kailai (谷開來) is likely to face life in jail for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last year.
It also brings a curtain down on China’s most sensational trial in three decades, yet opens a new and more politically dangerous act for the CCP — how to deal with Bo, an ambitious and well-connected provincial leader whose downfall exposed rifts in the party.
“I feel the verdict is just and fully reflects the court’s special respect for the law, its special respect for reality and, in particular, its special respect for life,” Gu said of the sentence in official television footage of the hearing.
Gu, 53, stood expressionless, hands folded in front of her, as she spoke.
At her trial on Aug. 9, Gu admitted to poisoning Heywood in November last year and alleged that a business dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua (薄瓜瓜), according to official accounts published by state media.
A court official, Tang Yigan (唐義幹), said the court had concluded that Heywood used threatening words against Bo Guagua, but had never acted on them.
The court also found Gu’s actions reflected a “psychological impairment,” but did not elaborate.
Gu could still face execution if she commits a new offense over the next two years. However, such suspended sentences are usually commuted to long prison terms.
The court, in Hefei, also said Zhang Xiaojun (張曉軍), an aide to the Bo family, was sentenced to nine years in jail for acting as Gu’s accomplice.
Four policemen were also convicted yesterday of having sought to protect Gu from investigation, receiving jail sentences of between five and 11 years — a development that could prove damaging for Bo Xilai because it establishes formally that there was an attempted cover-up.
Police sources in Chongqing have said that Bo Xilai had tried to shut down the investigation into his wife.
Some Chinese political experts doubt the party will look to prosecute Bo Xilai, saying that his name was not cited at either the trial of his wife or the four policemen.
A source close to Bo Xilai’s family told media that China’s leadership had yet to make a final decision on how to deal with him.
“Bo Xilai might be tried so that he can be silenced and ensure he can’t stage a comeback,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bo Xilai has only been accused of unspecified violations of party discipline that possibly include corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds.
These could lead to expulsion from the party, but criminal charges could see him locked away, making it much less likely that he could ever be politically rehabilitated.
Bo Xilai’s downfall has caused more division than that of any other leader for more than two decades.
To leftist supporters, Bo Xilai was a rallying figure for efforts to reimpose party control over unequal market growth, but others saw him as an opportunist who wanted to impose his hardline policies on the country.
Bo Xilai has not been seen in public since March, when he gave a combative defense of his policies and family at a news conference during China’s annual parliament session.