HEFEI, China (AP) — The wife of a disgraced Chinese politician was given a suspended death sentence Monday after confessing to killing a British businessman by poisoning him with cyanide in a case that rocked the country's top political leadership.
A suspended sentence is usually commuted to life in prison after two years.
Sentenced along with Gu Kailai was a family aide who was given nine years' imprisonment for his involvement in the murder of Neil Heywood, a former family associate, Hefei Intermediate People's Court official Tang Yigan told reporters.
Four policemen accused of covering up the crime were given sentences from five to 11 years.
The sentencing closes one chapter of China's biggest political crisis in two decades, but also leaves open questions over the fate of Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, who was dismissed in March as the powerful Communist Party boss of the major city of Chongqing for unspecified violations.
Bo's dismissal and his wife's murder trial come at a sensitive time in China, with party leaders handing over power soon to a younger generation. At one time Bo was considered a candidate for a top position.
State media say Gu, 53, confessed to intentional homicide at a one-day trial held in this eastern China city on Aug. 9. The media reports — the court has been closed to international media — say she and Heywood had a dispute over money and Heywood allegedly threatened her son.
Gu was accused of luring the victim to a Chongqing hotel, getting him drunk and then pouring cyanide into his mouth.
He Zhengsheng, a lawyer for the Heywood family 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.
Tang said Gu and the family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, told the court they would not appeal.
State broadcaster CCTV showed Gu dressed in a white blouse and black pants suit briefly addressing the court from inside the dock surrounded by waist-high wooden columns.
"This verdict is just. It shows special respect for the law, reality and life," Gu said in calm, measured phrases.
Tang said the court considered Gu's testimony against others, her confession and repentance, and her psychological impairment as mitigating factors in sentencing. But he said it rejected claims that Heywood's threats had prompted the crime, saying there was no evidence he intended to make good on them.
During Gu's trail, the court was told she had suffered from chronic insomnia, anxiety and depression and paranoia in the past, and that she had been dependent on medication, but it found that she was willfully carried out the murder.
An amendment to China's criminal law in 2011 said that criminals with life sentences who show proper conduct can have their life sentences cut to 25 years in jail.
For their part in the cover-up, former deputy Chongqing police chief Guo Weiguo was sentenced to 11 years, leading officer Li Yang was given 11, and officers Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi were given five years each.
Former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, whose February flight to a U.S. consulate revealed suspicions that Heywood had been murdered, is expected to go on trial soon. Gu allegedly told Wang about her crime, but it isn't known if he'll be charged in relation to the murder.
Security was tight outside the court on Monday, with police officers standing guard around the building and at least a half dozen SWAT police vans parked on each corner.
Any ruling in the Gu case would have been politically delicate, and Chinese leaders may have decided to impose a lengthy prison term instead of death for fear that a more severe penalty might stir outrage or make Gu look like a scapegoat for her husband's misdeeds, political and legal analysts say.
Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the verdict was fair.
"My sense is that the Chinese public, including the legal profession, the majority will think it is well deserved," he said.
Li said the ruling against Gu will set expectations for Bo to be dealt with severely.
"If Bo does not get put through the legal process in the next few months, Gu will be seen as a scapegoat," he said.
The British Embassy, which had consular officials attend the trial, issued a statement Monday saying it welcomed the fact China had tried those it had identified as responsible.
The statement said Britain had told China it "wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied."
Gu's arrest and the ouster of her husband sparked the biggest political turbulence in China since the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.
Lawyers and political analysts said politics appeared to weigh heavily on the verdict.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said the outcome ignored legal strictures that would have required the death penalty, given that Gu had admitted to committing premeditated murder.
"Although I welcome this verdict, it doesn't actually stand up from a legal standpoint," Pu said.
Peking University law professor He Weifang said political considerations were clearly behind the relative leniency shown to Gu.
"If the murderer was an ordinary person who killed someone, not to mention killing a foreigner, the criminal would be sentenced to immediate execution," He said.
Bo was not called as a witness in the Gu trial and neither the verdict nor the evidence presented made any mention of him. The charges against Gu and Zhang also scrupulously avoided any mention of corruption or abuse of power to shield to the party's image, said Dali Yang of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.
"They are eager to close the case and move on," Yang said.
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