ABC News Beijing Bureau reports:
Precisely on time and as expected, on Monday the Intermediate People’s Court in Hefei announced that Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted party chief Bo Xilai, received a suspended death sentence for the alleged murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Once called the “Jackie Kennedy” of China, in six short months Gu has gone from being one half of one of China’s most powerful couples to a convicted murderer with a “history” of mental problems.
After the verdict was read, Gu had this short statement for the court, “I feel that the verdict is fair. It fully embodies that our court showed a special respect to the law, to reality and especially to life.”
Officially, she was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve. In China, after two years the vast majority of these sentences are commuted to life in prison. Gu could then be eligible for medical parole in seven years, or 2019.
The judgment was swift, coming just 10 days after her equally quick, one-day trial concluded. Gu was widely expected to avoid the death penalty, analysts say, due to her family’s prominence as well as the picture painted by the prosecution of an unstable, anxious mother who only killed Heywood to protect her Harvard University son.
Her alleged accomplice, aide Zhang Xiaojun received nine years in prison. While no further information was available from the court, neither one is expected to appeal the decision.
Heywood was found dead in his hotel room in the southwestern city of Chongqing last November. The prosecution claimed that Gu lured Heywood to a meeting to resolve a dispute over “economic interests” that somehow involved her son. At the time he was a graduate student at Harvard University and based in Cambridge, Mass. He has since completed his studies and is believed to be in the U.S. Gu, the prosecution told the court, got Heywood drunk and when he asked for water she poisoned him. Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph reported that the poison was cyanide. The official Chinese report on the cause death was alcohol poisoning, but Heywood’s body was cremated before an official autopsy could be carried out.
It was only in February that a different story emerged after Wang Lijun, the former police chief in Chongqing, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Reportedly fearing for his life because he knew too much, Wang presented U.S. officials with evidence that Gu was involved in Heywoods’ death. He eventually received a police escort to Beijing, where he was taken into custody and placed on “vacation style leave” by the government. In June Wang stepped down as a party member, forfeiting his immunity. He is expected to be tried for treason for his decision to enter the U.S. consulate without approval.
The rapid resolution of Gu’s case reflects the party’s determination to resolve the scandal as quickly and quietly as possible. Observers suggest that Gu has taken the fall in this dramatic tale in order to protect the government from what could turn into significant public protest over massive corruption at the very top of party leadership.
Reports are the economic dispute that came between the family and Heywood involved millions upon millions of dollars. Neither the family of Heywood nor British officials have confirmed details, but speculation repeatedly returns to Heywood’s role in assisting Bo and his wife in moving their wealth out of China and the cut he may have been demanding as a fee.
Observers say the last thing the leaders of the party want is for corruption charges to be a matter of public discussion. That could seriously undermine party credibility just as the government prepares for a once-in-a-decade transition of power.
While the decision today may draw a line under Gu and the death of Heywood, the question remains as to what will become of Bo. Throughout his wife’s entire case, Bo’s name was not mentioned a single time. In April, it was announced that Bo was being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations.” According to the Wall Street Journal, he is thought to be in the custody of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The commission is headed by He Guoqiang, himself a former Chongqing chief who is believed to favor harsh punishment.
There is precedent for high-level officials to wait in lengthy limbo as the party debates a course of action. In the early 90s, in separate cases, both the Beijing mayor and Shanghai’s party chief were eventually brought to trial after well more than a year following their respective scandals.
Alternatively, the likelihood that Bo will be criminally charged may be fading, considering the verdicts today. He could then be dealt with internally, which would allow the government to avoid public spotlight falling on one of their own. He has not been seen in public since March, but he is still a member of the party and the Parliament, which affords him immunity from criminal charges. Bo already received a public lashing by none other than president Hu Jintao at the conclusion of the National People’s Congress in March. As Patrick Chovanec, the assistant professor of Practice at Beijing’s Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, tweeted, “I suspect the official message will now be ‘Bo Xilai scandal is over, move along’ (w/Bo’s real sins dealt with behind closed doors.’)”