China: Gu Kailai spared death penalty for killing Neil Heywood … Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, has escaped the death penalty for murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood in a decision that takes the country’s leaders one step closer to resolving the biggest political…
Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, has escaped the death penalty for murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood in a decision that takes the country’s leaders one step closer to resolving the biggest political upheaval in decades.
A spokesman for the court in Hefei said Gu’s “despicable” crime deserved the death sentence but it would be suspended for two years because the Briton had verbally threatened her son and because Gu suffered mental impairments that had weakened her self-control.
Suspended death sentences are almost always commuted to life imprisonment in China.
Experts say the judgment will have been decided high up in the Communist party – which controls the courts – as it tries to deal with the scandal surrounding Bo, only months ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition.
While many suspect that Bo’s political enemies saw the murder trial of his wife as an opportunity to bring him down, the case has nonetheless cast an unwelcome light on the party elite.
Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institution, an American thinktank, said: “This whole thing is not just about Gu Kailai or even Bo Xilai: it’s about the survival of the Communist party and how it can get out of this very embarrassing and threatening situation.”
Coverage was carefully controlled, with Chinese news sites running reports of events from Xinhua, China’s official press agency.
While there was widespread discussion of the case on blogs, with several users arguing that Gu’s sentence was unfairly lenient compared with those given to less well-connected criminals, BBC and CNN broadcasts were blocked.
Tang Yigan, the court’s spokesman and vice-president, said Gu, 53, regretted her crime and had also provided information about other people’s crimes.
In a state television clip, Gu appeared calm as she told the court: “The judgment is just. It reflects the court’s special respect to the law, to reality and to life.”
A family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, 33, was jailed for nine years. Tang said it was relatively lenient because he was an accessory rather than the crime’s instigator, had confessed and had expressed regret.
He Zhengsheng, a lawyer representing relatives of Heywood in Hefei, said: “We respect the sentence from the court.”
Tang said Gu poisoned Heywood, 41, with cyanide after she and her son, Bo Guagua, had a financial dispute with him in 2011, which worsened when the Briton threatened Bo verbally. But the court found no proof that Heywood had taken action, as Gu’s lawyers apparently claimed.
The businessman’s friends say they fear that he was smeared to justify a lighter sentence for Gu.
His death last November in south-western Chongqing – where Gu’s husband Bo was then party secretary – was initially blamed on excessive alcohol consumption.
But two months later Chongqing’s former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the US consulate in Chengdu after breaking with Bo, triggering the scandal. Wang is expected to go on trial soon, though it is unclear what charges he will face.
That could be a step on the path towards action being taken against his former boss and patron. Little has been heard about Bo, who was once tipped to join the party’s highest ranks, since the announcement in the spring that he was being investigated for disciplinary violations.
Some analysts think the party will deal with him internally, pointing out that his name was not mentioned during his wife’s trial and that prosecutors focused on the murder without raising issues such as corruption.
Bo, a polarising figure, remains popular in Chongqing and his former stronghold of Dalian, and supporters would almost certainly react angrily to a trial – especially if he did not co-operate. It would also raise questions about how someone with such flaws could reach such a senior level.
But Li suggested Gu’s sentence might have paved the way for charges against her husband – first disciplinary and then probably criminal.
“People are already asking, why not Bo Xilai? This is what authorities want: step by step to handle Bo,” he said. “But we still don’t know whether it will be before the party congress or after.”
In a separate session, four police officers from Chongqing were jailed for between five and 11 years for covering up the murder. The court said they “faked, hid and destroyed” evidence to protect Gu.
Two British diplomats attended Gu’s trial and sentencing in a consular capacity. A spokesman for the British embassy in Beijing said: “We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible.
“We consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rightsstandards and for the death penalty not to be applied.
“Our thoughts are with Mr Heywood’s family during this distressing time … our focus remains on offering them all the support we can.”
Suspended death sentences have become more common in recent years, with official sources indicating that they exceeded actual death sentences in 2007. But lawyers said Gu Kailai’s sentence was nonetheless an extremely lenient one for premeditated murder.
“If the murderer was an ordinary person who killed someone, not to mention killing a foreigner, the criminal would be sentenced to immediate execution,” said Peking University law professor He Weifang. Well known rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang added: “Although I welcome this verdict, it doesn’t actually stand up from a legal standpoint.”
Analysts suggested before the sentencing that officials faced a political dilemma: too heavy a penalty might be seen as retaliation against the family of a popular official by rivals; too lenient might suggest that those with powerful connections could literally get away with murder. Although suspended death sentences are almost invariably commuted to life imprisonment, few of those who receive them die in prison. Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights scholar in Hong Kong, said one study showed such sentences usually resulted in the criminals serving between 14 and 24 years. Gu might also be eligible for medical parole, but would have to wait two years for her sentence to be commuted and then serve a minimum of at least seven more years.