Gu Kailai, the wife of a former political rising star, was slapped on Monday with a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman but the punishment, some analysts say, is likely to be commuted to a lengthy jail term with a possibility of medical parole.
Gu, the wife of former ruling Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, was found guilty alongside her former employee Zhang Xiaojun of "intentional homicide" in the death of Neil Heywood last November, official media reported.
A court in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui sentenced her to death with a two-year reprieve during a 20-minute hearing in which she and Zhang said they wouldn't lodge appeals, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, citing court documents.
Zhang Xiaojun, her former bodyguard, was sentenced to a nine-year jail term as an accessory in the case, the verdict said.
"Heywood had threatened Bo in e-mails, which made [Gu] Kailai fear for her son's personal safety and decide to murder Heywood," the agency quoted the court documents as saying.
The case forms part of the biggest political scandal to rock the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership since the ouster of former premier Zhao Ziyang in the wake of the military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
Bo was one of China’s most powerful and charismatic politicians until he was sacked in March.
He is currently under investigation for unspecified "disciplinary violations" alongside his former police chief Wang Lijun, whose Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu brought the allegations against Gu to light.
Court official Tang Yigan told reporters after the hearing that the court had suspended Gu's death sentence because she suffered from psychological problems.
"The circumstances of Gu's crime were odious and the consequences were serious," Tang said. "She was the key mover in a joint crime."
"This crime should carry the death penalty, but the court took account of the fact that Neil Heywood had threatened Gu Kailai's son," he said, but gave no indication of how long she would serve.
Decided in advance?
Suspended death sentences are typically commuted to life in prison in China, although the amount of time served varies.
Official television pictures showed a sober-looking Gu speaking briefly after sentencing, during which an assembled courtroom of judicial officials, guards, and spectators stood to attention.
Lawyers and analysts said the verdict was likely decided well in advance of what was a carefully stage-managed show-trial ahead of a crucial Party leadership transition later this year.
Wang Youjin, visiting professor at the Beijing University of Politics and Law, said that the sentence could mean that Gu will end up serving only a few years in jail.
"If at the end of the two-year reprieve, she hasn't committed another crime, then her sentence could be commuted to 20 years or life imprisonment," Wang said, adding that Gu is unlikely to be jailed for so long.
"The particular circumstances of this case indicate a sentence of eight or 10 years," he said.
According to an official account of the trial, Gu and Zhang invited Heywood to Chongqing, and joined him at Room 1605 at Building No. 16 of the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel where he was staying, drinking tea and alcoholic drinks with him.
"After Heywood became intoxicated, vomited, and asked for a drink of water, she poured a poison into his mouth that had been prepared beforehand and that she had given to Zhang Xiaojun to bring along, causing Heywood's death," the statement issued after Gu's one-day trial said.
"The Hefei People's Procuratorate believes that the accused [Gu] Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun used brutal means to commit murder, and the facts of the crime are clear and backed by ample evidence."
The statement named Gu as the principal offender, and Zhang as the accessory to the murder, which it said took place on Nov. 13, 2011.
It said the court had heard and viewed the evidence for the prosecution, as well as statements from the prosecution and the defense lawyer. A legal representative of Heywood's family also spoke during the trial.
Meanwhile, Beijing-based lawyer Li Zhuang said the sentence was in line with claims that Gu had cooperated with police enquiries.
"[It depends on] whether there was a confession, whether there was wrongdoing on the part of the victim, and Gu Kailai's psychological state," Li said.
"These are the main three factors that would influence the sentencing decision," he said.
But rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said Gu might be quietly released on psychological grounds at any time after the two-year reprieve period is over.
"She could get medical parole for mental health problems, and this wouldn't be subject to any time restraints," he said. "It would be very easy for them to use this as a way of releasing her."
Beijing-based rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said the default sentence for intentional homicide under Chinese law is the death penalty.
"According to the law, the first penalty they consider should be the death penalty," Mo said.
One of the elite
Gu's sentence was predicted by a number of lawyers and political analysts, who judged that China would never execute a highly privileged member of its own political elite.
Gu, as the daughter of a revolutionary general and the wife of a Politburo member, is one of China's "red nobility," and a "princeling" of an influential political family.
Mo said lawyers had raised a number of questions about the evidence and due legal process in Gu's trial.
"Just to show an e-mail from Neil Heywood saying 'I will destroy you' isn't enough to show that he was threatening the safety of [Gu's son] Bo Guagua," Mo said.
"I'm sure there were other factors involved here, like a dispute over money," he said. "Very few reports have written about this aspect."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.