Gu Kailai, a lawyer and the wife of ousted Chinese political leader Bo Xilai, was handed a suspended death sentence on Monday for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news service. The ruling by the court in the eastern city of Hefei means that she will escape execution in the case that has shaken up China’s leadership during a sensitive year of political transition and triggered the downfall of her famously ambitious husband. A suspended death sentence means that with good behavior over the next two years, her punishment will likely be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of further reductions in the length of her detention. A family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in helping Gu kill Heywood.
The British embassy in Beijing said it supported the decision to not pursue the death penalty. “We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood and tried those they identified as responsible,” the embassy said in a statement on its website. “We consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human-rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied.”
During a one-day trial on Aug. 9, Gu didn’t deny the prosecution’s allegations that last November she invited Heywood, 41, to a remote hotel in Chongqing, the southwestern city where her husband was party boss, got him so drunk that he vomited and then fed him poison when he asked for water. But her defense put forward mitigating circumstances, arguing that she was psychologically weak at the time of the crime and that she was responding to a threat that Heywood had made to “destroy” her son, Bo Guagua. It was widely predicted that Gu would escape execution, based on the political stakes and alleviating factors raised in official coverage, including Gu’s cooperation with investigators.
Heywood became acquainted with Bo and Gu while Bo Xilai was mayor of the coastal northeastern city of Dalian. Heywood helped their son gain admission to Harrow, the prestigious English boarding school, but later had a falling out with the family over money. Prosecutors say Heywood was upset that he had not received his promised take from a real estate project that went bust and demanded his expected profit of $20 million. One version relayed online by an observer at the trial said Heywood had temporarily detained Bo Guagua while in England to pressure the family into paying up. Friends of Heywood have questioned that allegation, telling the Wall Street Journal that he was not the sort to resort to force or threats.
Gu’s trial was only partially open. Two U.K. diplomats were allowed to attend, but Xinhua and China Central Television were the only media permitted to witness the proceedings. Analysts said the verdict and sentence were likely not determined by the local court, but by the highest levels of China’s leadership. As a political statement Gu’s sentence required a balancing act: ensure that her punishment matched the seriousness of the crime of murder, but not so harsh that the ongoing political transition would be stained with the execution of the wife of a once important player. Until his downfall this spring, Bo was a member of China’s 25-person Politburo and had been considered a leading candidate for elevation to its Standing Committee, the country’s top decisionmaking body.
Legal experts pointed out clear shortcomings in the trial, including a lack of transparency and discrepancies between the government’s case and publicly known facts. Prosecutors argued, for instance, that Gu met Heywood around 2003, though the relationship went back to the 1990s. Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese lawyer and human-rights activist, said that under more typical circumstances, if Gu had been an average citizen rather than the wife of a Politburo member, the case would have ended with a death penalty. “It’s clear that Gu killed Heywood. It’s been ruled out that she is suffering from mental illness, and we haven’t seen that she revealed other people’s crimes, so this is not a normal verdict,” Pu says. “We can’t explain the verdict from the normal logic of the law, but we can explain it from the logic of politics.”
A key political consideration is whether the verdict is accepted by the Chinese public and helps the leadership bring an end to the Bo Xilai scandal, or whether it raises further questions and distracts from the shift in China’s top leadership, which will begin with the Communist Party’s national congress scheduled for this fall. From that perspective, the handling of the Gu case will be a victory for the Chinese leadership. “I think the majority of Chinese people will think it is a well-deserved sentence and that it’s appropriate,” says Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution.
The fate of Wang Lijun, the former Bo aide and top Chongqing police official forced the scandal public when he fled to a U.S. consulate in February, has not been determined. The New York Times reported this week that he may soon face trial for treason. The fate of Bo still hangs over everything. He is under investigation by the Communist Party’s discipline arm for “serious disciplinary violations,” and there has been no official indication of what crimes he will be charged with. The lack of any corruption charges for Gu, despite evidence that her family has built up a business empire worth more than $100 million, indicates that Bo probably won’t face corruption charges either. If he avoids serious punishment, then the Chinese public may question whether his wife was treated fairly. “It not over yet,” says Li. “The most crucial factor is the Bo Xilai factor. We still do not know what will happen to him. If, after few months, nothing happens, then people’s view may change. That’s why I think there’s a potential problem here.”
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing