Authorities in the northern city of Tianjin have handed a life prison term to a former rising star in the ruling Chinese Communist Party after finding him guilty of taking bribes worth more than 170 million yuan (U.S. $26.7 million), official media reported.
Former Chongqing party chief and Politburo member Sun Zhengcai was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Tianjin No. 1 Intermediate People's Court on Tuesday.
The court also confiscated all of Sun's personal assets and deprived him of his political rights for life, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Sun's conviction related in part to his tenure as party secretary in Beijing's Shunyi district from 2002 to 2017, where he was accused of "using his position to facilitate the bidding of various organizations and individuals, project approvals, and business operations."
His actions had "seriously undermined the normal running of state institutions, and ruined the reputation of government officials," the court found.
Those who bribed him had "confessed their crimes and repented of their own free will," and were also punished, it said.
Xinhua quoted the court as saying that Sun's "illegal gains and ... yields they generated" would also be retrieved.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said the sentence was roughly in line with expectations, and followed precedent in not handing down the death penalty to Sun, 53.
"Bribes of more than 100 million yuan (U.S. $15.7 million) could incur the death penalty if the law was interpreted in a strict manner, absolutely," Mo said. "But there has already been a precedent—that of Bai Enpei in Yunnan, who wasn't sentenced to death."
"So it's not new for the death penalty not to be awarded, according to current judicial practice."
Mo said Sun isn't expected to appeal.
"Firstly, the facts of the case were pretty well-established, so they can't be overturned, and secondly ... appealing at the very least makes you look oppositional," he said, although he didn't rule out behind-the-scenes deals to lighten Sun's sentence.
During his heavily scripted trial last month, Sun admitted to taking advantage of his position to seek profits for others, as well as illegally accepting huge amounts of money and property during postings to Beijing’s Shunyi district, Beijing’s municipal party committee, and Jilin province, while serving on the 25-member Politburo and as Chongqing party chief.
He pleaded guilty, expressed remorse, and said he would abide by the court's decision.
A senior official has said that the investigation into Sun was sparked after authorities discovered his involvement in a “conspiracy” to overthrow President Xi Jinping.
The chairman of China's securities regulator Liu Shiyu told a meeting of top finance officials during the 19th party congress last October that the once-rising political star had plotted to seize power from the current leadership.
Chongqing resident Xie Dan said they believed Sun's life sentence was about right.
"I don't really support the death penalty for economic crimes, and while that's not the case in the letter of the law, in practice, they probably take that into account," Xie said.
But a second Chongqing resident surnamed Zhang hit out at a lack of transparency around Sun's jailing.
"This man was the leader of Chongqing municipality, so why did all of these issues happen when he was in power?" Zhang said. "There should be a full disclosure of the whole trials and judgment instead of just telling the people the result."
"Everything about the court procedure, the facts of the case and the alleged crimes, should be publicized in various ways," he said.
Meanwhile, Hebei-based rights activist Niu Lundou said she thought the figure of 170 million yuan was too low, suggesting that deals had been cut that were never made public.
"There is no rule of law in China," Niu said. "They just decide behind the scenes how they are going to deal with you, and when they've done that, they instruct the court to issue a sentence accordingly, and they tell you what to say."
"This was all decided on a while ago."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.