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Fate of ousted Chinese politician uncertain after wife’s sentence

Former Chongqing Municipality Communist Part Secretary Bo Xilai.

JASON LEE/REUTERS/JASON LEE/REUTERS

Gu Kailai will either be executed or spend a very long time in prison. The question that remains now is what will happen to her husband Bo Xilai, a man who just six months ago seemed destined to join the elite club that rules China.

Ms. Gu was convicted Sunday of murdering a British businessman and given a death sentence, the implementation of which has been suspended for two years. Legal experts say her punishment is likely to be commuted then to life in prison.

In footage shown on state-run CCTV, the 53-year-old Ms. Gu told the court she accepted the verdict. "The sentence is just and shows immense respect for the law, reality and life," she said in a measured voice, wearing a black pantsuit over a white blouse. The court was told that Ms. Gu – who during her one-day trial earlier this month admitted to luring Briton Neil Heywood to a Chongqing hotel room and slipping him cyanide – would not appeal her sentence.

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The British Embassy in China was lukewarm in its response to the verdict, which followed an eight-hour trial earlier this month that saw little evidence made public other than Ms. Gu's reported confession. "We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible," the embassy said in a statement posted Monday on its website. "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."

Mr. Heywood, 41 was found dead last November in a hotel room in Chongqing, a city Mr. Bo then governed with an iron fist. In her confession, Ms. Gu – a prominent lawyer who put her career on hold as her husband ascended the political ranks – said she and Mr. Heywood had a dispute over money, and that she'd decided to kill the Briton after he threatened to harm her son. "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 tragedy which was created by me was not only extended to Neil, but also to several families," her reported confession read.

However, the death wasn't treated as suspicious until Mr. Bo's police chief, Wang Lijun, sought refuge inside a U.S. consulate, claiming to have proof Ms. Gu killed Mr. Heywood. His request for asylum was refused, and he eventually agreed to leave the consulate on the condition he be met by officials from Beijing, rather than Mr. Bo's security forces.

Four Chongqing policemen were also convicted Sunday of helping Ms. Gu and Mr. Zhang cover up the murder and given prison sentences ranging from five to 11 years. A Bo family aide received nine years in jail after admitting he helped Ms. Gu make preparations to kill Mr. Heywood.

Mr. Wang, the police chief, is expected to go on trial next, perhaps on charges of treason, which could carry the death penalty.

The giant unanswered question is how Mr. Bo himself will be treated. He has not been seen since March, when he was purged from his leadership posts as tales of murder and corruption in Chongqing began to surface.

"[Ms. Gu's sentence] is very likely a political decision, rather than a judicial one," said He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University, speaking before the verdict was announced. "The decision does not mean that Bo will not also be criminally charged in the future. It's not the end of the whole case, it's just part of a long story."

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Until February, Mr. Bo was seen as a rising star in China. The son of Communist hero Bo Yibo, he was also one of the country's most charismatic politicians and widely expected to join the nine-person Standing Committee of the Politburo – the apex of power in China – at a party congress scheduled for this fall. He was already a member of the wider 25-member Politburo.

Now he is in an unknown location, awaiting a decision from the country's leadership about what kind of punishment he will face. He has been accused in the state-run media of unspecified "serious disciplinary violations" and has not been seen or heard from since he was purged from his posts in March.

"The case of Bo Xilai shows that officials should not overestimate their personal influence in China, or they will have the illusion of being above Party discipline and the law. If those who study China do not perceive this, they will misinterpret the country," read an editorial distributed in April over the state-run Xinhua newswire.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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