Updated at 3:45 p.m. EST on 2012-09-24
A court in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu has handed a 15-year jail term to the former police chief of fallen political star Bo Xilai for covering up the murder of a British businessman and for visiting a U.S. diplomatic mission in the city, official media reported.
Wang Lijun, former vice-mayor and police chief of the megacity of Chongqing, was handed the sentence along with a year's deprivation of political rights after being found guilty of "bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power, and bribe-taking," Xinhua news agency said on Monday.
However, rights activists slammed the trial for its lack of transparency, with the only version of events available being the statements released by the court via Xinhua.
"It doesn't matter what the outcome of Wang's trial was," said Huang Qi, Chengdu-based founder of the Tianwang rights website. "The fact that it wasn't transparent is ultimately unacceptable."
The sentence, announced by the Chengdu Municipal Intermediate People's Court, represented a combined punishment for all offenses, the agency said.
Seven years of the sentence was for the charge of "bending the law for selfish ends" and a further two years was for "abuse of power," with both linked to charges in the indictment that Wang knew that Bo's wife Gu Kailai was linked to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood last November and did not pursue the investigation further.
By contrast, Wang received a sentence of just two years' imprisonment and one year's deprivation of political rights for "defection," a charge linked to his February visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, during which he reportedly told U.S. officials that Gu was a suspect and that Bo had exploded angrily and demoted him when Wang brought the subject up.
"Despite knowing that [Gu] Kailai was a major suspect in Heywood's murder and having obtained important related evidence, Wang, then chief of Chongqing's Public Security Bureau, bent the law by selecting Guo Weiguo, then deputy chief of the bureau and a close friend of both Wang and [Gu] Kailai, to take charge of the case," Xinhua said.
Wang had elicited, and even recorded, a confession from Gu of her poisoning of Heywood, but had concealed it from police investigating the Briton's murder at the time, it said.
Wang had fled to the U.S. Consulate on Feb. 6, "feeling that he was in danger," the agency said, and had requested political asylum from the U.S. He left, however, the next day, after being "persuaded" by Chinese officials.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said all of the sentences handed to Wang were relatively light, given their seriousness.
"This sentence is extremely lenient," Liu said. "Of course, this is a special case, and the sentencing probably wouldn't have been so light if he had just been a regular criminal."
Nine years of the sentence were linked to charges of "bribe-taking," Xinhua said, specifically to two luxury apartments in Beijing that were gifted to Wang by top Dalian-based company executives Xu Ming and Yu Junshi in return for the release of four people held by Chongqing police.
"During that period, Wang received two apartments in Beijing worth 2.85 million yuan (U.S.$449,583) bought by Xu and received a total of 200,000 yuan [about U.S. $32,000] from Yu to cover the rent for Wang's villa in Chongqing," Xinhua said, adding that the authorities had now recovered most of the money and property involved.
Wang had already told the court he had no plans to appeal, it said.
The sentences were made lighter by Wang's voluntary decision to leave the U.S. Consulate and hand himself over to Chinese authorities, the agency said, quoting the judgement document from the court. This "could be considered to be voluntary surrender and merit a lighter penalty," it said.
And, in an apparent reference to Bo, who is still under investigation for "serious violations" of ruling Chinese Communist Party discipline, Wang's sentence, which carried a maximum penalty of death, was further mitigated by his production of "important clues" that exposed "serious offenses committed by others," the judgement said.
"These clues played a key role in the investigation of other cases," it said, adding that Wang's voluntary confession and guilty plea had also played a role in sentencing.
U.S.-based commentator Hu Ping, who edits the online magazine "Beijing Spring," said a number of factors had contributed to a relatively light sentence for Wang.
"The sentence was more or less in line with what I guessed he would get," Hu said. "His defection was actually reluctant, and he took the decision of his own accord to leave the [U.S.] Consulate," Hu said.
"That part of the sentence was never going to be very heavy."
Beijing-based lawyer Li Zhuang, who was imprisoned after speaking out about forced confessions during Bo and Wang's high-profile "strike black" anti-mafia campaigns, said there were a number of inconsistencies in the official narrative of the Chongqing scandal so far.
"The judgement from the court in Hefei showed Wang Lijun strategizing; it made him a key conspirator [with Gu Kailai]," Li said. "At the very least, Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun were co-conspirators."
"But in the Chengdu judgement, we don't get this impression. On the contrary, we are told that he voluntarily confessed," he said.
Gu was handed a suspended death sentence by a court in Hefei, Anhui province last month for the "intentional homicide" of Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room last November.
Bo was widely regarded as a possible candidate for a post on China's all-powerful Politburo standing committee until the scandal surrounding Heywood's death emerged, apparently ending his political career. He was sacked on March 15.
Hu said a decision regarding Bo's fate would likely soon follow.
"I think that next, we will see Bo Xilai dealt with," he said. "It'll probably be decided before the 18th Party Congress."
Before his visit to the U.S. Consulate brought events in Chongqing into public awareness, Wang was seen and feted as a determined "supercop," even starring in a TV documentary.
Wang's high-profile anti-crime campaigns clocked up thousands of arrests, and sparked widespread accusations of torture sessions and other human rights violations.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.