Heywood’s purported e-mail, written in English, was displayed in court with a Chinese translation as part of evidence at the trial, which consisted almost entirely of prepared written testimony.
It was in response to this perceived threat, prosecutors said, that Gu got Heywood drunk and then, after he vomited and asked for water, poured cyanide-laced poison into his mouth.
But Chinese and Western legal scholars, as well as friends of Heywood, have pointed to several gaps and unanswered questions in the case. And the outcome of the trial is believed by many to have been decided by party leaders behind the scenes.
Gu’s sentence is seen as a signal for how the party may deal with Gu’s husband — the former powerful party chief of Chongqing, once in contention for top leadership whose fate now poses a delicate problem for the party hierarchy.
According to Xinhua, Gu received a reprieve from the death penalty because of several factors: her supposed psychological instability during the incident, Heywood’s alleged threats against her son, her offer of information on others involved and her expression of regret for the crime.
Four policemen charged with covering up Heywood’s murder were also sentenced on Monday to prison terms ranging from five to 11 years.
All mention of Gu’s husband was conspicuously missing throughout the trial and sentencing — distancing him from the murder. And her relatively lenient sentence may bode well for Bo’s case, said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
Leaders have been careful not to delve into other charges related to Bo and his wife, including allegations that they used their political power to amass a personal fortune, a topic others in top party positions are eager to avoid.
“The party certainly has tried to limit the influence of [the] scandal,” Zhang said. “Bo Xilai will receive further punishment after this case, but the punishment may not be very heavy. They face a dilemma now.”
If Bo goes largely unpunished, the new leadership will inherit an unresolved and potentially unstable issue as it takes over the reins, Zhang noted. If Bo is punished too heavily, other princelings like Bo — influential offspring of China’s revolutionary leaders — may be angered, exacerbating a split within the party.
“But Bo Xilai caused this splitting of the party, so he should be the one to take responsibility,” Zhang said.
Bo has not been heard from since his suspension from his position in Chongqing and from China’s powerful 25-member Politburo.
Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.