Bo Xilai's Wife Gets Suspended Death Sentence

The wife of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai has gotten a suspended death sentence for killing a British businessman. Gu Kailai was convicted after confessing to killing Neil Heywood. Her accomplice, a family employee, was sentenced to nine years in prison.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to China, where the wife of a fallen Communist Party leader has received a sentence - a suspended death sentence for murdering a British businessman. Her accomplice, a family employee, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Gu Kailai came under suspicion after a scandal involving her husband, who was one of the rising stars of the Communist Party before he lost his job amid suspicions about his behavior. NPR's Frank Langfitt has been following this case from Shanghai.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Suspended death sentence, what does that mean in practical terms in China?

LANGFITT: Well, what it really means is no immediate execution by bullet, which is usually how these kinds of cases go. And after a couple of years, while she's imprisoned, if there's good behavior, which is almost certain, this sentence will be reduced to life. Also, over time it could be further knocked down to as little as nine years, according to legal analysts here.

INSKEEP: OK. So effectively a life sentence here, if things go as expected. How did she avoid the death penalty in this very, very public case?

LANGFITT: Well, there are two reasons. I mean, one is the official reason. The other's kind of really a political reason. The court today cited mitigating factors. They said, of course, she confessed to the crime. And they also talked about her psychological state. They said she suffered from insomnia, paranoia and depression in the past.

But analysts say there're also some really good political reasons to avoid the death penalty. Her husband, Bo Xilai, was a top Communist Party leader. This case helped his enemies sideline him. But, you know, Bo's also the son of a communist revolutionary leader. He still has a lot of friends in the party. And people thought the death penalty would just create more friction at the top of the leadership. And so this - by solving this case this way, it allows the party to begin to move on.

INSKEEP: Frank, you mentioned we're talking about the wife of a fallen Communist Party leader. Would you remind us what this case is about and how his wife ended up effectively getting dragged into it?

LANGFITT: Yeah. Well, what happened was - and we don't know all the facts. Some of it's pretty murky. But according to the court, what she ended up doing was killing a British businessman who'd been something of a confidante of the family and helped, apparently, their son Bo Guagua go to a British boarding school. And it was apparently over some sort of business dispute.

The court's very murky about that dispute and it's believed that it may have actually revealed some corruption about the family. So the party doesn't want to get into that. And, according to the court, she poisoned him with cyanide after she got him drunk in a hotel room in southwestern China in the city of Chongqing.

INSKEEP: There must be people there, as there certainly are here, suspecting that Gu Kailai was targeted, in effect, to get at her husband because of the broader scandal in which he's become embroiled.

LANGFITT: Well, I think she created an opportunity for a lot of his enemies. You know, he was a very successful, kind of charismatic politician. But some of the things he was doing in Chongqing - he had a big kind of anti-mafia case against a lot of businessmen where he seized assets. And a lot of people I think in the upper echelons in Beijing and the Communist Party were afraid that he was going to use these kinds of tactics against them.

It was no secret that he wanted to get into the top of the party. This fall, the party will be choosing its new leaders for the first time in 10 years. And so, once this murder case became public, Bo was finished.

INSKEEP: OK. So he's finished politically, but where is he now?

LANGFITT: Well, right now, nobody knows exactly. You know, he's been detained by the party. It's not through the court system. And during this trial he was barely mentioned. But the trial really wasn't good for him. I mean, one thing it revealed is that his own police employees down in Chongqing actually covered up his wife's crime.

And so this fall, before we get to the leadership change, the party has to kind of resolve all this. They're going to have to punish him and get this big controversy out of the way, because it's been a huge embarrassment to the party this year.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Shanghai. This is NPR News.

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