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Wife of disgraced Chinese leader gets death sentence with reprieve

Former Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, right, and his wife, Gu Kailai, at a government ceremony in Beijing in 2007.
Former Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, right, and his wife, Gu Kailai, at a government ceremony in Beijing in 2007.Alexander F. Yuan / AP file

Updated at 2:30 a.m. ET: BEIJING — The wife of Bo Xilai, the former high-flying Chinese politician, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve after being found guilty Monday of murdering a British businessman, marking the swift descent of a man who was once one of China's most powerful figures.

The sentence means Gu Kailai is likely to face life in prison, provided she does not commit offenses in the next two years, Reuters reported.

Zhang Xiaojun, a Bo family aide who admitted to helping Gu with the murder, received a nine-year jail sentence, a witness to the hearing said. Non-official media were not allowed in the courtroom.

Witnesses said that neither would appeal the decision.

Gu's prosecution in the killing of Neil Heywood was the first step in Beijing's efforts to resolve the biggest political scandal to hit China in decades. Bo, the former party secretary for the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, had been a controversial figure in Chinese politics with his embrace of Marxist policies and his liberal use of local police to silence critics.

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The conviction of Gu, 53, was all but ensured when the murder charges were released by state media with reassurances from unnamed investigators that there was ample evidence to convict.

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"The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear," the investigator told China's official state news agency, Xinhua, late last month. "The evidence is irrefutable and substantial." 

What remained to be seen, though, was how the Communist Party would punish one of its own — the wife of a man many experts once considered a serious candidate for China's all-powerful nine-person standing committee.

The answer was hinted at in the carefully composed narrative that has come out in the Chinese media about the case. During the one-day trial Aug. 9, the premeditated way Gu Kailai planned and carried out the murder of her former business partner was clearly evidenced, but it was steeped in justifications and rationalizations — so much so that by the end of Xinhua's account, Gu came off as a protective mother pushed to the edge.

Business dispute?
Heywood, 41, allegedly had become embroiled in a business dispute over a deal he entered into with Gu's son, Bo Guagua. When that business venture fell apart, Heywood allegedly sent a menacing email saying he would "destroy" Gu unless he was paid the tens of millions of dollars he believed he was owed from the deal. 

He then allegedly locked the 24-year old in a house in Britain.

"The few days last November, when I learned my son's life was at death's door, my mind indeed collapsed," Gu said, according to Xinhua. It was then, suffering from "chronic insomnia, anxiety and depression, and paranoia," according to an expert panel, that Gu decided she had to kill Heywood to protect her son.

"To me, that [Heywood's email] was more than a threat. It was real action that was taking place," Gu testified, "I must fight to my death to stop the craziness of Neil Heywood."

Allegedly enlisting the help of Zhang, her former family employee and an ex-soldier, Gu lured Heywood to Chongqing with the intention of poisoning him. On Nov. 13, Gu and Heywood had dinner before driving back to the villa he was staying at in the Nanshan Lijing resort.

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There, the two drank whisky and tea until Heywood became drunk and vomited. Zhang then entered the room and helped Heywood to his bed while also allegedly slipping two vials — one filled with a cyanide compound and another of a different drug — of poison to Gu that she had procured earlier. When Heywood asked for water, Gu allegedly poured the poison into his mouth.  

The next day, Gu told Wang Lijun, Chongqing's police chief and a trusted ally of Bo Xilai, of the killing. 

Wang secretly recorded the conversation but also helped to cover up the murder. In response to inquiries by the British government and the Heywood family, Chongqing police reported the death as an accident due to alcohol poisoning. 

Gu may have gotten away with murder, but she couldn't anticipate what came next: a falling-out between Wang and Bo Xilai that led the police chief to flee in March to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, where he sought asylum. There, with U.S. officials present, Wang dropped the bombshell about Gu's involvement in Heywood's murder.

Wang's explosive accusation and his taped evidence forced the Ministry of Public Security to reopen the case and may have sealed his own fate. Xinhua's account ominously noted that his entry to the U.S. consulate was "without authorization." 

Wang's trial is expected soon.

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More questions than answers
Those who knew Heywood well have raised serious questions about the chain of events laid out by the Chinese courts. Could Heywood, who has been described as a gentleman and generally not violent, have really threatened Gu's son? Did Gu Kailai truly have a mental breakdown? Or was this a convenient way for the Communist Party to distance itself? 

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More important, what does the sentence bode for Bo? He's under house arrest while under investigation. Does his wife's show trial signal the end of the public phase of this scandal? Will Bo be disciplined internally by the Communist Party? Or will he also get his day in court? 

The fact that Bo's name doesn't come up in Xinhua's account bodes well for his chances of riding out this storm. But in the opaque world of Chinese Communist Party politics, it will likely be a fruitless endeavor reconciling the official party narrative with what actually happened.

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Professor Jerome Cohen, a leading authority on Chinese law at New York University, called the court decision a "typical Chinese compromise."

"It was a show trial that raised more questions than it answered. The sentence given was anticipated because to execute her immediately would have alienated more numbers of people who still support Bo Xilai or who don't think the trial was telling us the whole story or fair," he told NBC News in a telephone interview.

"This trial demonstrated the need for genuine due process of law in China because this case did not have it, it doesn't show us the involvement of her husband, there are many missing links in the puzzle," he added.

He Weifang, a prominent professor of law at Peking Universitgy, concurs that the court verdict was "absolutely a political decision, not a judicial one." "If the crime were committed by ordinary people, the outcome would have been different," he told NBC News.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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