HEFEI, China (Reuters) - China sentenced the wife of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai to death on Monday but suspended her execution, setting the stage for a possible final purge of Bo himself in a scandal that has shaken Beijing ahead of a leadership transition.
The sentence means Gu Kailai 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 ruling Communist Party — 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, wore a white shirt and black suit and stood expressionless, hands folded in front of her, as she spoke, pausing at one point to find the right words.
At her trial on August 9, Gu admitted to poisoning Heywood last November, and alleged that a business dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua, according to official accounts published by state media.
A court official, Tang Yigan, 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 offence over the next two years. Almost invariably in China, however, such suspended sentences are commuted to long prison terms.
The court, in the eastern city of Hefei, also said Zhang Xiaojun, an aide to the Bo family, was sentenced to nine years in jail for acting as an accomplice to the poisoning of Heywood.
“With both of the defendants declining to appeal, this marks the end of things,” Zhang’s lawyer, Li Renting, told Reuters.
Four policemen were also convicted on Monday 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 because it establishes formally that there was an attempted cover-up.
Police sources in Chongqing, the south-western municipality ruled by Bo until he was ousted as its party chief in March, have said that Bo tried to shut down the investigation into his wife after being told she was a suspect early this year.
Some Chinese political experts doubt the party will look to prosecute Bo, and note that his name was not cited at either the trial of his wife or the four policemen. But He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, said he believed Bo would still face a court once the party had decided how to handle him.
“I think there’s a range of options, such as economic crimes, concealing a crime, or obstructing justice that could all be used against him,” He said. “I don’t think that we can say that Bo Xilai has been cut free from this.”
A source close to Bo’s family told Reuters that China’s leadership had yet to make a final decision on how to deal with him, and the lack of any mention of him in the trial left room for negotiation over his fate.
Bo has only been accused of unspecified violations of party discipline that possibly include corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds. These could lead to his 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 might be tried so that he can be silenced and ensure he can’t stage a comeback,” said the source close to Bo’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the lack of mention of his name leaves room for him to bargain on what mistakes he has to acknowledge.”
Bo’s downfall has stirred more division than that of any other leader for more than two decades.
To leftist supporters, Bo was a rallying figure for efforts to reimpose party control over dizzying, unequal market growth. But he made foes among those who saw him as an opportunist who wanted to impose his hardline policies on the country.
Bo’s hopes for climbing into China’s next top leadership unravelled after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate in early February for about 24 hours and exposed the murder allegations.
Britain’s embassy in China said in an emailed statement that it welcomed the “fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood and tried those they identified as responsible”. It added that Britain had asked the Chinese authorities not to apply the death penalty.
Bo, the son of a revolutionary, ran Chongqing where Heywood was killed. Bo was seen as competing for a seat in the Politburo Standing Committee, the body at the pinnacle of power in China, at a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
He was sacked as Chongqing boss in March and Gu was publicly accused of the murder in April, when Bo was suspended from the Politburo, a 25-member elite council that ranks below the Standing Committee. He has yet to be expelled from that council.
Bo has not been seen in public since March, when he gave a combative defence of his policies and family at a news conference during China’s annual parliament session.
Bo’s ardent sympathisers remain convinced he is the victim of plotting by his enemies. Wang Zheng, a Beijing woman who has campaigned in his defence, said the government would face an uproar if it decided to prosecute him.
“This is all about politics. It’s got nothing to do with some sort of rule of law,” said Wang, a former college teacher.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Robert Birsel