BEIJING — A Chinese court gave a suspended death sentence Monday to Gu Kailai, the wife of deposed regional Communist Party chief Bo Xilai, ending a high-profile murder trial that appeared tightly scripted by the party’s leaders, according to court witnesses.
At Gu’s one-day, eight-hour trial on Aug. 9, prosecutors laid out a dramatic narrative, describing how Gu poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood because she believed he had threatened her son.
In an apparent attempt to stifle objections and put an end to a highly sensitive case for the party, authorities also told Gu’s family members that they would be allowed to see her in less than 20 days as long as they did not appeal her case, said a person with knowledge of the discussion within Gu’s family.
The offer was conveyed before Monday’s sentencing hearing, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.
According to that person, authorities also told the family that both Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun, a family aide, will be sent to Beijing soon to serve their prison sentences near their families.
According to two witnesses, Gu and Zhang both said in court they will not appeal their case.
Gu’s case and the spectacular downfall of her ambitious husband threw China’s ruling leaders into a political crisis earlier this year, amid a sensitive once-in-a-decade leadership transition in China. It revealed deep fissures within the party’s secretive higher echelons between supporters of Bo and those backing his competitors.
Many party experts believe top officials will want to fully resolve the scandal, including the fate of Bo and his former lieutenant Wang Lijun, before the leadership transition begins this fall.
According to the official news agency Xinhua, the sentencing hearing lasted 20 minutes. And in a very short piece of footage on state-run television, Gu was shown in court saying, “I feel the verdict is fair and just. It reflects comprehensively the special respect of our court to the law, reality and especially to life.”
The suspended death sentence means that if Gu does not commit further offenses in the next two years, her sentence will likely be downgraded to life imprisonment. At the court hearing in the city of Hefei on Monday, Zhang was sentenced to nine years in prison.
He Zhengsheng, a lawyer representing Heywood’s family, said, “We respect the verdict of the court.” Heywood’s family has not expressed an opinion on the outcome, he said, but plan to discuss it with their lawyer later this week.
A person with ties to the familyalso described in detail on Monday for the first time the testimony that Bo Guagua, Gu’s son, wrote on behalf of his mother. The court did not use the son’s testimony, the person said, though the family gave it to Jiang Min, Gu’s court-appointed attorney.
“In the testimony, Bo Guagua asserted he didn’t meet Heywood and did not engage in anything with Heywood in recent years,” the person said.
Another person close to the family and familiar with the case confirmed the details about Bo Guagua’s testimony, saying, “In his testimony, Bo Guagua cleared up the hearsay about his mother and Heywood, which is not true.”
The assertions attributed to Gu’s son — who was studying until recently at Harvard University — cast doubts on the official narrative pushed by court officials and state-run media throughout Gu’s trial.
Court officials said Gu killed Heywood because he sent her son an e-mail threatening him over business differences.
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.