Beijing: Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who confessed to murdering a British businessman, was on Monday handed down a suspended death sentence by a Hefei court in a high-profile case that triggered a major political scandal in ruling CPC and cost her husband his job.
Intermediate People`s Court in Hefei city, which conducted a day-long trial on August 9, sentenced 54-year-old Gu to death with a two-year reprieve for intentional homicide, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
According to legal analysts here, the suspended death sentence could be converted to life imprisonment after two years by court, depending on the conduct of the convicted person.
Gu`s orderly Zhang Xiaojun, who admitted to assisting her in administering cyanide to 41-year-old British businessman Neil Heywood in November last year, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Regarded as one of the most politically significant murder trials in China in recent times, Gu`s conviction sealed the political career of her 63-year-old husband Bo, who was a powerful leader of the CPC before the case came to light.
He has already been sacked from all the posts he held in the CPC, including that of the Chief of Chongquing city, and faced disciplinary investigations by the party, pending trial for attempting to cover up Gu`s role in the murder of their family friend Heywood.
Until Heywood`s murder came to light, Bo, considered a hard-line Maoist leader, was the front-runner for one of the top posts of the ruling Communist Party of China, which is gearing up for the leadership change this year.
President Hu Jintao and other top leaders of the party are poised to retire this year after a decade long-stint in power. The 18th Party Congress which would select the new leaders is set to meet in November.
Already, the party has elected 2,700 delegates to attend the Congress.
Though the murder took place in Chongqing, the trial was held at Hefei, which is about 1200 km far away, apparently to avoid any backlash from Bo`s supporters.
Two British diplomats were allowed to attend the trial but it was kept out of bounds for the foreign media, though a court spokesman briefed the journalists outside the court.
In a statement, British embassy said "we welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible."
"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," according to a report on BBC.
A lawyer for the Heywood family said they respected the court`s decision.
Earlier, the UK government denied speculation that Heywood was a British spy. But his prolonged stay in China and his close proximity with top Chinese leaders had sparked off speculation about his activities in China.
Married to a Chinese woman, Heywood was stated to be a businessman with high-profile links.
Gu was convicted of poisoning Heywood, a business associate, in November last year at Chongqing city after falling out over a business deal.
Besides confessions by Gu and Zhang, her case`s fate was sealed by admission of cover up by four top police officials of Chongqing, which was till early this year governed by Bo.
The same court tried the four police officials and is expected to announce sentences for them as well.
Though Gu admitted to her complicity in the murder, she defended her action saying that she resorted to killing Heywood after he "threatened" the security of her son Bo Guagua, who at that time studied in London. Bo Guagua is now studying in the US.
Also, the court took a lenient view as Gu admitted to her complicity in the murder and cooperated with investigators.
According to the reports circulated by the official Chinese media, she attributed her actions to "mental breakdown" and would "accept and calmly face any sentence".
"Evidence" presented by prosecutors showed that after Gu learnt of the escalation of their dispute with Heywood, she believed he had threatened the personal safety of her son and decided to kill him.
"To me, that was more than a threat. It was real action that was taking place. I must fight to my death to stop the craziness of Neil Heywood," Gu testified.
According to testimonies of Gu and Zhang, they visited Heywood`s hotel room on November 13, 2011 and administered cyanide to the Briton, who collapsed after drinking alcohol.
In her statement, she said "this case has been like a huge stone weighing on me for more than half a year. What a nightmare. During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy."
"The case has produced great losses to the (Communist) Party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease. I am grateful to the humanitarian care shown to me by those who handled the case. I solemnly tell the court that in order to maintain the dignity of the law, I will accept and calmly face any sentence and I also expect a fair and just court decision."
A lawyer herself, Gu reportedly did not challenge the charges and apologised for causing embarrassment to CPC.
Known as China`s Jacquelyn Kennedy for maintaining a high profile along with Bo, Gu is daughter of Gen Gu Jingsheng, a prominent revolutionary during Mao era who was jailed during Cultural Revolution after he fell out with the top leadership.
During those years, she was forced to work in a butcher`s shop before resuming her education once the political turmoil eased after Mao`s death in 1976.
She qualified as a lawyer in 1988 and opened her own law firm in Beijing after graduating from Peking University. She also has a master`s degree in international politics.
Gu is Bo`s second wife and closed her lucrative law practice after he became Communist Party chief in Chongqing to avoid allegations that she was benefiting from his position. She also authored a book on fighting a legal action in the US, after representing Chinese firms in a high-profile case there.
Her trial is expected to be followed by that of Wang Lijun, Bo`s second in command of 33 million people-strong Chongqing city.
Heywood murder, which was initially treated as death due to excessive drinking of alcohol, came to light after Wang sought refuge in US Consulate in Chengdu fearing reprisals from Bo as he wanted to investigate Gu`s role in it.
He came out of the Consulate only after assurances of security to his life and reportedly revealed Bo and Gu`s complicity in the murder of Heywood, who was believed to have been involved in a major business deal with them.
Recent reports said Wang, also a close friend of Bo, was aware of the plot to murder Heywood and secretly recorded Gu`s conversations with him. His trial is expected to be followed by that of Bo for attempting to cover up Gu`s role in the murder.