Gu Kailai , the wife of shamed Politburo member Bo Xilai , was given a suspended death sentence yesterday at the end of a politically charged murder trial meant to put to rest swirling rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding one of the worst scandals to rock China in decades.
But the widely anticipated sentence, likely to be commuted to life imprisonment, has been greeted with deep scepticism, with many law experts denouncing the case as a show trial and a disgrace to the country's already flawed legal system.
The fate of her husband Bo, whose name was conspicuously not mentioned during the trial, in yesterday's court ruling or in state media coverage of the case, remains unclear.
But analysts said the verdict on Gu may pave the way for a lenient punishment of the former Chongqing party chief.
Bo, who was sacked in March and then suspended from the Politburo in April after reports of his wife's involvement in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, has been accused only of unspecified violations of party discipline so far.
Chen Ziming , a political scientist based in Beijing, said Bo's punishment would be lenient and made public before the key party congress scheduled for the autumn. "The impact caused to Bo by his wife's trial is insignificant and the chance of severe punishment for Bo is minimal," said Chen.
He pointed to the fact that Gu did not contest the charge of intentional homicide brought against her or seek to appeal against yesterday's ruling.
Analysts also said the top leadership may have reached an agreement on Bo, who had become a source of contention.
The ousting of Bo - a popular princeling and once a leading contender for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee during the leadership reshuffle later this year - effectively put an end to his political career. "Imposing tough actions on Bo will trigger strong reactions from many interest groups inside the party," Chen said.
At her trial on August 9, Gu admitted poisoning Heywood last November and alleged a business dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua . The verdict was read out at 9am at the Hefei Intermediate People's Court, Anhui province . Television footage showed Gu, 53, appearing calm. "The verdict is just and reflects a special respect towards the law, reality and life," she said.
Gu's accomplice, Zhang Xiaojun , a family aide, was jailed for nine years.
Li Xiaolin, a lawyer for Zhang, said it had been agreed that Gu and Zhang would be allowed to see their families 10 days after the verdicts, provided neither lodged an appeal, Reuters reported.
The British embassy in Beijing welcomed the end of Gu's trial and said Britain had asked the mainland authorities not to impose capital punishment.
Professor He Weifang , of Peking University, disputed the court ruling, saying it was a political trial. "There were simply too many holes and unanswered questions in both the hasty arrangement of the trial as well as its result," he said.
"The fact that key witnesses like Bo were absent laid bare the true intent of the authorities - that is to cover up the truth." Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan expressed frustration over the lack of transparency in the handling of the scandal and the trial.
"I think the authorities have tried hard to use so-called evidence that can hardly be verified, or rather, in my view, excuses, to save Gu's life," Liu said.
Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk and Teddy Ng
The key points
1. The court concluded that Neil Heywood used "threatening words" against Gu Kailai's son Bo Guagua, but there was no evidence to show that Heywood actually acted on those words.
2. Gu has full criminal responsibility, but she suffered from psychological impairment, and her ability to control her behaviour while committing the crime had been weakened.
3. Gu informed authorities about other people's illegal and party discipline-breaching activities, and thus played a positive role in investigations into relevant cases.
4. Gu pleaded guilty and showed repentance in court.
More than 100 people attended the closing trial, including relatives and friends of the defendants, British diplomats, the media, and Chinese officials.