Gu Kailai gets suspended death sentence in China

BEIJING — Gu Kailai, wife of a former Politburo member and daughter of a revolutionary general, was given a suspended death sentence Monday for poisoning a British businessman inChina’s most politically charged trial since the 1980s.

The sentence was handed down by the Intermediate People’s Court in the city of Hefei, and it confirmed widespread predictions that the court wouldn’t dare put to death a member of the “red nobility.”

The British Embassy in Beijing, which had sent consular officials to attend the court hearing, released a statement Monday morning saying it had requested that the death penalty not be applied.

In China, suspended death sentences are commuted after two years to life in prison, spelling a grim future for the 53-year-old Gu, a lawyer and once-glamorous figure who was frequently seen in expensive designer clothing and photographed with celebrities.

Her husband, Bo Xilai, had been Communist Party secretary in the important southern Chinese city of Chongqing. His ascent into the upper echelons of the Chinese leadership was interrupted by the sensational murder case, which has created political turmoil not seen since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Zhang Xiaojun, 33, the family’s butler, whom Gu roped into helping her prepare and deliver the poison to Briton Neil Heywood, was given a nine-year sentence.

The 41-year-old Heywood, a longtime expatriate and friend of the Bo family, was found dead Nov. 15 in a Chongqing hotel room after a night of drinking whiskey with Gu. The death was initially blamed on excessive alcohol consumption, and Heywood’s body was cremated. But months later, Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun, sought asylum in a neighboring U.S. Consulate, spilling a tale of murder and an elaborate coverup.

Salacious though the details were, the scandal also threatened to expose the corruption and impunity of the ruling elite at the highest levels. The murder case also has shattered the fragile political balance the Communist Party was trying to maintain in advance of a once-in-a-decade power transition coming up this year with the 18th party congress.

Although the trial was closed to the media, snippets of footage were released on television and an account of the proceedings was published — leading to comparisons with the 1980-81 “Gang of Four” trial of Mao Tse-tung’s last wife, Jiang Qing, who was accused of helping lead the calamitous Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. Jiang was also given a death sentence that was later commuted to life.

Gu’s sentence was not immediately made public, but a lawyer representing Heywood’s family, He Zhengsheng, disclosed it to reporters waiting outside the closed courthouse in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province.

“We respect the court’s decision,” He added.

The British government released a statement Monday praising the Chinese handling of the case.

“We consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied,” the statement read.

Gu had confessed to the murder during a closed-door, seven-hour trial held Aug. 9 in the same courthouse. Under Chinese procedure, a verdict and sentence are handed down at the same time.

China executes about 4,000 people each year, more than any other country. Convicted murderers are usually executed. Gu, a prominent lawyer and author, has written that in China “if you clearly kill somebody, they’ll arrest you, try you and shoot you.”

During Gu’s trial, the prosecution described her as a calculating, cold-blooded murderer who summoned Heywood to Chongqing, took him to dinner and got him so drunk on whiskey that he vomited and nearly passed out. With help from her aide, she put him in bed in his hotel room and poured water laced with cyanide into his mouth. She then placed a “Do not disturb” sign on the door and left.

The prosecutors also described her as mentally ill, suffering from manic depression and “mild schizophrenia,” according to observers in the courtroom. They also theorized that Gu had killed Heywood because he had threatened “to destroy” her 24-year-old son, Bo Guagua, if the family didn’t pay $14 million that he claimed he was owed for a failed real estate deal.

The alleged threat has drawn widespread skepticism from critics who believe that Heywood might simply have known too much about the Bo family’s business dealings, particularly the funneling of money overseas in violation of Chinese currency controls. At the time, the son was studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Heywood was living in China.

“The story spun about a mother sacrificing herself for her own can hardly deceive anyone,” Hu Shuli, the editor of the independent Caixin magazine, wrote in an editorial last week. She suggested that the real story is not the murder itself but the fact thatChina’sjustice system appeared to have broken down. Gu’s “brazen sense of immunity from the law was supported by a network of high-level officials in the Chongqing Ministry of Public Security.”

Four police officials also stood trial this month in Hefei and were given sentences Monday ranging from five to 11 years in prison. But the Chinese government has remained curiously mute about what will happen to the 62-year-old Bo, a charismatic politician who was a protege of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and headed a powerful Maoist faction within the ruling elite.

Mo Shaoping, one ofChina’sleading human rights lawyers, noted that the Chinese state media are still referring to the ousted politician as “Comrade Bo,” meaning that he has not been expelled from the Communist Party, usually a prelude to prosecution.

“There have been some improvements compared to other politically sensitive trials in China. It was not exactly a show trial, but you can see there is still a long way to have the country governed by rule of law,” Mo said.

Paul French, a Shanghai-based author who writes about modern Chinese history, said the verdict follows a tradition dating to imperial times: Let the woman take the fall.

“The tale of the dragon lady is an old story in China. They don’t want to show that the men who rule the country are incompetent,” French said.