Gu Kailai Found Guilty of Heywood Killing

Gu Kailai, wife of deposed Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, and family aide Zhang Xiaojun were declared guilty on Monday of the intentional homicide of British businessman Neil Heywood. Zhang was sentenced to nine years for his lesser role in the killing, while Gu received a suspended death sentence which, like that of former business tycoon Wu Ying, will likely be commuted to life imprisonment. From Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times:

The verdict and sentence appear to wrap up one of the more lurid chapters of a sweeping scandal that brought down Ms. Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai, and challenged the Communist Party during a politically delicate, once-a-decade leadership transition that is set to culminate in the fall.

[…] Shortly after the verdict, Tang Yigan, deputy director of the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court in Anhui Province, told reporters that the court weighed Ms. Gu’s confession, her testimony that implicated others and the litany of psychological problems she is reported to have suffered. In the end, however, he said Mr. Heywood’s threats in no way justified her crimes.

[…] Legal analysts and political experts said Ms. Gu’s suspended death sentence was most likely calibrated to satisfy the Chinese public and the British government, but also supporters of Mr. Bo, who remains a darling among leftists and certain factions of the leadership enamored of his zealous campaign against organized crime and his efforts to address some of the income disparities that have accompanied three decades of free-market reform.

The British embassy issued a statement welcoming the investigation and trial, at which two of its diplomats were present as observers, and restated its opposition to the execution of Heywood’s killers.

Donald Clarke at China Law Prof Blog explained the probable reality of Gu’s punishment, which could ultimately be reduced to as little as nine years in prison.

Gu Kailai has been sentenced to death with a two-year suspension. Under Art. 50 of the Criminal Law, if she commits no new intentional crimes while in prison, that sentence will be commuted after two years to life imprisonment. It can even be commuted to 25 years’ imprisonment if she “genuinely demonstrates major merit” (确有重大立功表现). And further reductions are possible after the initial commutation.

Under Art. 78 of the Criminal Law and a 2011 Supreme People’s Court directive, those sentenced to life imprisonment or a term of years (including as a result of a commuted death sentence) may have their sentences reduced for good behavior (that’s my own term; Chinese law speaks of showing repentance or establishing merit) during their imprisonment. And various forms of good behavior are listed, including (in the 2011 SPC directive) paying compensation. Presumably that will not be a problem for Gu.

While state media have presented Gu’s trial as proof that all are equal before the law, the possibility of early parole has cultivated the opposite impression. Josh Chin surveyed some online reactions at The Wall Street Journal:

While censors appeared to be holding back in the first few hours after the verdict was reported, not all comments were allowed to stand. “A suspended death sentence isn’t surprising at all,” one Sina Weibo user wrote in a post that was quickly deleted. “From Jiang Qing to today, what government official’s family member has been given an actual death sentence for committing a serious crime? It’s an unspoken rule!”

And although cynicism dominated the early reactions, a handful of users tried to cast the verdict in a positive light — as a development that might help turn public opinion against capital punishment.

“It is extremely necessary for China to get rid of the death penalty,” argued on Sina Weibo user posting under the name Ke Luomu. “Capital punishment is the only service prepared exclusively for regular people.”

According to WSJ Chinese editor Li Yuan, however, the verdict’s moment in the Weibo spotlight quickly passed:

(Myanmar announced the abolition of direct censorship on Monday, though as Reuters’ Aung Hla Tun reports, other restrictions on press freedom will remain.)

A number of legal scholars and other observers have expressed scepticism about the trial based on second-hand accounts of the evidence presented. On Monday, a new inconsistency apparently emerged between the official version of events and the unheard testimony of Gu’s son, as reported by a family friend. From William Wan at The Washington Post:

“In the testimony, Bo Guagua asserted he didn’t meet Heywood and did not engage in anything with Heywood in recent years,” the person said.

[…] The assertions attributed to Gu’s son — who was studying until recently at Harvard University — cast doubts on the official narrative pushed by court officials and state-run media throughout Gu’s trial.

Court officials said Gu killed Heywood because he sent her son an email threatening him over business differences.

Those suspicious that the woman on trial was not Gu Kailai at all received unexpected support on Sunday. According to The Financial Times, “two security experts familiar with facial recognition software said the person shown in state television footage of the courtroom was not Ms Gu.” Meanwhile, still more outlandish rumours surfaced on Boxun—”which often makes claims difficult to prove”, as Want China Times delicately put it—that a former rival of Gu’s had been murdered, plastinated and put on display as part of the famous Body Worlds exhibition. (See a similar rumour debunked by Roland Soong at EastSouthWestNorth, via Bill Bishop).

With Gu’s case, for now, apparently closed, The Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page looked ahead to future developments in the Bo Xilai saga:

The next step toward concluding the scandal is widely expected to be the trial of Mr. Wang [Lijun], most likely on treason charges related to what authorities have called his “unauthorized” consulate visit. Mr. Wang, who was detained by Chinese security officers and placed under investigation after leaving the consulate, stepped down in June as a member of the national Parliament—a resignation that stripped him of immunity from prosecution.

Mr. Bo, however, is still a member both of the national Parliament and of the party—official exclusion from which is usually a necessary precursor to criminal charges, according to experts on Chinese politics and law.

[…] If Mr. Bo is dealt with internally by the party, a final decision on his fate could be announced by the autumn, but if he is turned over to the courts, many observers do not expect a trial until next year at the earliest.