HEFEI, China—The wife of a disgraced Chinese politician received a suspended death sentence on Monday for the murder of a British businessman, as authorities move to tidy up a huge political scandal ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this fall.
Gu Kailai’s sentencing clears the way for the ruling Communist Party to deal with her husband, Bo Xilai, who was formerly one of China’s most prominent politicians before being stripped of his Politburo post in the scandal. Bo has not been directly implicated in the murder of Neil Heywood, but is accused of unspecified grave violations of party discipline.
“They are eager to close the case and move on,” said Dali Yang, director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.
Gu’s suspended sentence will almost certainly be commuted to life in prison after two years, a relatively lenient punishment resulting from her cooperation with investigators and what the court deemed her mental instability at the time of Heywood’s death by cyanide poisoning last November.
Family aide Zhang Xiaojun, accused of abetting the murder, was sentenced to nine years, Hefei Intermediate People’s Court official Tang Yigan told reporters.
Bo was not called as a witness in the Gu trial and neither the verdict nor the evidence presented made any mention of him. The charges against Gu and Zhang also scrupulously avoided any mention of corruption or abuse of power, serving to shield the party’s image from damage.
Four policemen accused of covering up the crime were given sentences from five to 11 years.
State media say Gu, 53, confessed to intentional homicide at a one-day trial held in this eastern China city on Aug. 9. The media reports—the court has been closed to international media—say she and Heywood had a dispute over money and Heywood allegedly threatened her son. State media said the two feuded after Heywood asked for a multi-million dollar commission on a real estate venture that had gone bad.
Gu was accused of luring the victim to a Chongqing hotel, getting him drunk and then pouring cyanide into his mouth.
Tang said Gu and Zhang told the court they would not appeal.
The ruling against Gu will set expectations for Bo to be dealt with severely, said Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“If Bo does not get put through the legal process in the next few months, Gu will be seen as a scapegoat,” he said.
State broadcaster CCTV showed Gu dressed in a white blouse and black pants suit briefly addressing the court from inside the dock surrounded by waist-high wooden columns.
“This verdict is just. It shows special respect for the law, reality and life,” Gu said in calm, measured phrases.
The sentencing moves China one step closer to resolving its biggest political crisis in two decades that exposed divisions within the leadership and threatened to complicate plans for Vice President Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao as top leader at a party congress expected in October.
Questions remain, however, over how the party intends to deal with Bo, who was dismissed in March as the powerful Communist Party boss of the major city of Chongqing and suspended from the 25-member Politburo.
Bo had at one time been considered a candidate for the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee at the upcoming 18th Communist Party national congress and it isn’t clear whether the party will deal with him internally or put him on trial and risk further harm to its image.
The case has for months engrossed ordinary Chinese, among whom Bo remains broadly popular, especially with the working classes drawn by his populist flair and policies such as building affordable housing and cracking down on property developers and others he labeled gangsters. Many have tended to see his downfall as a politically motivated takedown engineered by his party rivals.
“I think it is just a political struggle, it has nothing to do with us ordinary people. The 18th party congress is coming very soon, so it must have something to do with that. I don’t really care about it,” said a Beijing investment adviser, who would only give his surname, Zhai, because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Tang said the court considered Gu’s testimony against others, her confession and repentance, and her psychological impairment as mitigating factors in sentencing. But he said it rejected claims that Heywood’s threats had prompted the crime, saying there was no evidence he intended to make good on them.
During Gu’s trial, the court was told she had suffered from chronic insomnia, anxiety and depression and paranoia in the past, and that she had been dependent on medication, but it found that she willfully carried out the murder.
An amendment to China’s criminal law in 2011 said that criminals with life sentences who show proper conduct can have their life sentences cut to 25 years. Chinese law also allows for medical parole so Gu could be released after serving even less time.
For their part in the cover-up, former deputy Chongqing police chief Guo Weiguo was sentenced to 11 years, leading officer Li Yang was given seven, and officers Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi were given five years each.
Former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, whose February flight to a US consulate revealed suspicions that Heywood had been murdered, is expected to go on trial soon. Gu allegedly told Wang about her crime, but it isn’t known if he’ll be charged in relation to the murder.
Security was tight outside the court on Monday, with police officers standing guard around the building and at least a half dozen SWAT police vans parked on each corner.
Gu’s arrest and the ouster of her husband sparked the biggest political turbulence in China since the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.
Lawyers and political analysts said politics appeared to weigh heavily on the verdict, with the verdict on Gu apparently calibrated to assuage demands for justice without being overly harsh.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said the outcome ignored legal strictures that would have required the death penalty, given that Gu had admitted to committing premeditated murder. “Although I welcome this verdict, it doesn’t actually stand up from a legal standpoint,” Pu said.
Peking University law professor He Weifang said political considerations were clearly behind the relative leniency shown to Gu.
“If the murderer was an ordinary person who killed someone, not to mention killing a foreigner, the criminal would be sentenced to immediate execution,” he said.