Gu Kailai has been spared execution for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, with a court in the central Chinese city of Hefei on Monday announcing a suspended death sentence for the wife of the purged former Politburo member, Bo Xilai.

Ms. Gu was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve by the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. An orderly at the Bo household, Zhang Xiaojun, who helped her poison the once close associate of the Bo family, was given a nine-year prison sentence. More than 100 people, including relatives and friends of Ms. Gu and Mr. Zhang, British diplomats and members of Chinese political bodies attended the sentencing.

A suspended death sentence was the widely expected compromise outcome ahead of the eagerly anticipated verdict, seen as the most closely watched since the famous “Gang of Four” trial three decades ago. As with that trial, which the Communist Party of China (CPC) used to draw a line over the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Monday’s verdict has been seen by analysts as a reflection of the party’s desire to quickly close the chapter over a turbulent political scandal weeks ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Life term or less later

In China, suspended death sentences are usually commuted to life terms after a few years. Ms. Gu will likely spend, at the very least, 15 years in jail, unless she is granted medical parole. According to Donald C. Clarke, a professor of law and expert on the Chinese legal system at George Washington University, her life term can be commuted to 25 years’ imprisonment if she “genuinely demonstrates major merit.” The sentence could even be reduced to 15 years — a rare occurrence — under a debated 2011 Supreme People’s Court directive that overrode the Criminal Law.

Ms. Gu’s jail term could be further commuted if she cooperates with the authorities as they move forward the cases against her husband, who could stand trial following his likely expulsion from the party, and Wang Lijun, former police chief in Chongqing, who will stand trial in the coming days.

Mr. Wang’s flight to a United States Embassy in Chengdu on February 6 brought the scandal into the public domain. Once a close ally of Mr. Bo when he served as Party Secretary in Chongqing, he fled to the embassy reportedly seeking protection after a falling-out over his handling of the Heywood investigation. Mr. Wang is likely to be charged with treason or defection, and will also have to answer questions about his knowledge of the murder plot.

Settling the fates of Ms. Gu and Mr. Wang will allow the CPC to move forward with the trickier task of dealing with Mr. Bo.

The CPC’s top leaders, earlier this month, spent 10 days huddled in meetings at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, near here, to finalise the composition of the next Politburo Standing Committee and to agree on Mr. Bo’s fate.

While some CPC leaders are thought to favour closing the Bo Xilai case with his expulsion, others are pressing for his trial by judicial authorities following the revoking of his party membership.

In the two recent instances where Politburo members were expelled from the party, the officials also stood trial: the former Beijing Mayor, Chen Xitong, was given a 16-year jail term in 1998 and the Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu was jailed for 18 years in 2008 following court hearings held around a year after their expulsions.

Mr. Bo’s case is seen as more complicated considering his vast network of connections. A “princeling” whose father, Bo Yibo, was a founding CPC revolutionary figure, Mr. Bo was a popular politician with allies in the highest levels of the party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

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