Sentence appeared to wrap up one of the more lurid chapters of a sweeping political scandal.
BEIJING - A Chinese court on Monday gave Gu Kailai, the wife of a disgraced Communist Party leader, a suspended death sentence for the poisoning death of a British business associate who she reportedly feared was plotting to harm her son. In the Chinese legal system, such a sentence is often commuted to life in prison.
Gu could have been executed soon after the verdict, although most analysts had thought such a punishment unlikely. The suspended death sentence was announced with a two-year reprieve, meaning that the threat of execution would be lifted contingent upon her good behavior.
The guilty verdict and sentence appear to wrap up one of the more lurid chapters of a sweeping scandal that brought down Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, and challenged the Communist Party during a politically delicate, once-a-decade leadership transition that is set to culminate in the fall.
News of the sentence was disclosed by He Zhengsheng, the lawyer for the family of the Briton, Neil Heywood. "We respect the court's decision," He said outside the Hefei Intermediate People's Court.
Deposed last spring
The government said a guilty verdict had been reached after investigators interviewed nearly 400 witnesses and pored over more than 200 documents. Although few questioned her role in the murder, rights advocates have criticized Gu's prosecution as driven more by politics than by exacting legal procedure. Relatives say she was forced to accept government-appointed lawyers who did not have access to case files before the trial began.
Bo, once an aspirant to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and the party boss of the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, was deposed in the spring after a trusted aide entered the U.S. consulate in a nearby city and reportedly revealed details of the murder and subsequent cover-up. Bo, and his former aide, Wang Lijun, have been detained and are awaiting their fate. Four Chong- qing police officials accused of helping to cover up the crime were tried by the same court in the eastern city of Hefei but have yet to be sentenced.
Legal analysts and political experts say Monday's verdict was most likely calibrated to satisfy the Chinese public and the British government, but also supporters of Bo, who remains a darling among leftists and certain factions of the leadership enamored of his brash, populist-style of leadership.
Although China's propaganda officials have sought to dampen public attention to the case by restricting media coverage, the murder of Heywood and the prosecution of Gu have riveted a nation unaccustomed to seeing members of the political elite so publicly exposed.
The daughter of a revolutionary luminary, Gu, 53, was among the first generation of lawyers educated after the Cultural Revolution, the decade of social chaos during which schools were closed. As her husband rose through the ranks of the party hierarchy, she ran a successful law practice and wrote a book on the foibles of American courts -- and the strengths of the Chinese legal system.
More recently, she has been portrayed by the state media as an unstable woman addled by anti-depressants. According to the official Xinhua news agency, the murder plot was hatched after Heywood threatened Gu's son, Bo Guagua, and demanded the return of $22 million he claimed was owed to him after a real-estate venture failed.