Chinese leader's killer wife could be free in nine years

'Political' sentence condemned as Gu Kailai escapes death penalty for murdering British businessman

Beijing

Gu Kailai, the wife of the purged Chinese politician Bo Xilai, has been given a suspended death sentence for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood, in a verdict apparently aimed at stopping any damaging political fallout affecting the Communist Party.

Ms Gu reportedly told the court: "The verdict is just and reflects a special respect toward the law, reality and life."

Foreign media were barred from the trial in Hefei, west of Shanghai, where Ms Gu had earlier confessed to intentional homicide.

As far as the Communist Party is concerned, the end of the trial marks the closure of one chapter of China's biggest political crisis in two decades. Attention now turns to the fate of Ms Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, who was sacked in March as the powerful Party boss of the major city of Chongqing. Mr Bo may now avoid criminal charges and instead face internal party discipline.

Ms Gu admitted poisoning former business partner Mr Heywood with cyanide after a dispute between the two over money in which he allegedly threatened her son, Bo Guagua. Many believe she took the fall for her husband and son, whose high-spending lifestyle at Oxford and Harvard angered many ordinary Chinese.

Legal experts said that a suspended death sentence is usually commuted to life in prison after two years, and given the way Ms Gu emphasised her mental illness during the trial, the way is open for medical parole.

The San Francisco-based human rights group Dui Hua said it believed that Ms Gu could serve only nine years in prison. "The vast majority of sentences of death — an estimated 99.9 per cent in 1995 — are commuted to life imprisonment after two years, and people serving life sentences are eligible for medical parole after seven years," Dui Hua said in a statement.

Ms Gu had apparently been treated for a host of illnesses such as chronic insomnia, anxiety and depression, and has developed a degree of physical and psychological dependence on sedative hypnotic drugs, which resulted in mental disorders. The authorities could use these mental disorders as the basis for medical parole, Dui Hua said.

The prospect of Ms Gu's early release has stirred rumours that she brokered a deal with the authorities. Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said the verdict ignored legal rules that would have required the death penalty. "I can't see the reasons for reducing the penalty against her. This is a political, individual case. This is not a court judgment based on law," said Mr Pu.

But the process was always about competing Politburo factions jockeying for power in the world's most populous nation, as tensions grow ahead of a power transition at the 18th Party Congress during the autumn.

Throughout the process, Ms Gu has been referred to as "Bogu" – a compounding of both her surname and that of her husband. It seems designed to make sure no one forgets that Mr Bo is also a part of this case, even if no direct links have been drawn.

Sentenced along with Gu Kailai was a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, who was given nine years' imprisonment for his involvement in the murder of Mr Heywood.

To put this into context, this means he got a shorter sentence for organising a murder than Nobel prize-winner Liu Xiaobo got for organising a petition. Four policemen accused of covering up the crime were given sentences from five to 11 years.

Ms Gu's sentence caused shockwaves on Weibo, China's version of the banned Twitter service. People were angry that it seemed a senior official could get away with murder without being executed. One user named Chongshikongxu wrote: "This explains why people want to be an official. The bigger you are, the less likely to do [the sentence], even if you murder someone."

He Zhengsheng, a lawyer for the Heywoods who attended the sentencing, said he had to discuss the verdict with the family and did not know if they would lodge an appeal. "We respect the court's ruling today," he said.

The British embassy, which had consular officials attend the trial, welcomed the fact China had tried those identified as responsible and that the death sentence had not been applied.

Lack of evidence: An unsound case

The confession

The indictment was based largely on a confession by Ms Gu. She has been diagnosed with manic depression and moderate schizophrenia, leading many to question whether her illness affected her memory or intent.

The forensic evidence

Ms Gu testified that she poisoned Mr Heywood with cyanide, but an initial forensic report found no traces of cyanide poisoning.

Mr Heywood's health

Mr Heywood's family has a history of cardiovascular disease. Is it possible he may have died naturally of a heart attack induced by heavy drinking?

The footprints

The defence claim footprints were found on the balcony of the hotel room where Mr Heywood's body was found, but there was no attempt to find out who they belonged to.

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