Bo Xilai scandal: Gu Kailai jailed over Heywood murder

The moment Gu Kailai and her aide, Zhang Xiaojun, were sentenced

The wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Gu Kailai did not contest charges at her one-day trial that she poisoned Mr Heywood in November 2011.

Suspended death sentences are usually commuted to life imprisonment in China.

Mr Bo, the former party chief in Chongqing, was once seen as a contender for a national leadership position in a top-level reshuffle later this year.

But he has not been seen in public since the investigation into Gu was announced.

Gu's aide, Zhang Xiaojun, was jailed for nine years for his part in the murder.

'Special respect'

The verdict in China's most high-profile trial for years came early on Monday, inside a court ringed by security personnel.

Analysis

The outcome of the case is a neat one for the Communist Party. It pins the blame for Neil Heywood's death on Gu Kailai, but she escapes the full death penalty.

Her suspended sentence is sign of leniency. Murderers in China often face the firing squad.

Gu Kailai admitted premeditated murder. She confessed she lured Neil Heywood to Chongqing, procured cyanide, got him drunk, then poured the poison into his mouth. But she claimed she'd had a mental breakdown. The court said it accepted she was not in full control of her actions.

Many will believe it is her political connections that have won her this reprieve. And the trial has conveniently avoided the most sensitive questions.

Did her husband, the once powerful Bo Xilai, have any link to the crime or the cover-up by police under his control in Chongqing? How did the family become so rich? Were the business deals that led to Neil Heywood's murder corrupt?

They're uncomfortable questions for the Communist Party to face.

Chinese state media reported that during the 9 August trial - which was not open to all - Gu admitted she poisoned Neil Heywood in a hotel room in Chongqing, helped by her aide.

She said she had suffered a mental breakdown and that Mr Heywood had threatened her son amid a row over a property deal, state media said.

Images shown on Chinese state television showed Gu responding to the verdict. "This verdict is just. It shows special respect for the law, reality and life," she said.

Speaking after the sentence was announced, court spokesman Tang Yigan said the court believed Mr Heywood had threatened Gu's son but not acted on the threats. It also found Gu had been suffering from "psychological impairment", he said.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK had made it clear to Beijing that the case must be properly investigated, but that the outcome was "a matter for the Chinese authorities".

A lawyer for the Heywood family said they respected the court's decision.

Neil Heywood in Beijing in April 2011 Mr Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in November 2011

The sentence of death with a two-year suspension means that if Gu commits no crimes while in prison, her sentence will be commuted after two years to life imprisonment and could be further reduced for good behaviour, Chinese legal expert Professor Donald Clarke writes in his blog.

Chinese internet users reacted immediately to the verdict on Twitter-like microblogging platforms.

With key names connected to the case still apparently censored, most used the phrase "suspended death sentence". Within two hours, there were at least two million posts.

Many users expressed dissatisfaction, saying most murderers in China would be executed. Some attributed it to Gu's background, others suggested she could eventually be freed under medical parole.

Leadership change

At a separate trial on 10 August, four senior police officers from Chongqing admitted charges of covering up evidence linking Gu to the murder. A court official said they had been given terms of between five and 11 years in prison, AFP reported.

TIMELINE: BO XILAI SCANDAL

  • 6 Feb: Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun flees to the US consulate in Chengdu
  • 15 Mar: Bo Xilai is removed from his post in Chongqing
  • 20 Mar: Rumours suggest Mr Bo could be linked to the death of British businessman Neil Heywood
  • 10 Apr: Bo Xilai is suspended from party posts and his wife, Gu Kailai, is investigated over Mr Heywood's death
  • 26 July: Gu Kailai and Bo family employee Zhang Xiaojun are charged with killing Mr Heywood
  • 9 Aug: Gu Kailai goes on trial for murder
  • 20 Aug: Gu Kailai given suspended death sentence

Mr Heywood's death was initially recorded as a heart attack.

The case came to light when Bo Xilai's deputy, police chief Wang Lijun, fled to the US consulate in February, reportedly with information connected to the case.

He has not been seen in public since then and state media say he is being investigated.

It is not yet known how the Communist Party plans to deal with Mr Bo, once seen as a powerful and ambitious high-flier.

Many analysts expected him to be promoted to the nine-strong politburo Standing Committee later in the year.

Seven committee members are due to retire, with a new generation of leaders to take their place at a party congress expected later this year.

But Mr Bo has been stripped of his official posts and is being investigated for "discipline violations", state media reports say.

A lengthy Xinhua news agency write-up of Gu's trial, however, made no mention of Mr Bo.

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