Former Politburo member Bo Xilai was on Sunday handed a heavier than expected sentence of life in prison, as the court in this northeastern Chinese province found the “princeling” politician guilty on all charges of bribery, graft and abuse of power.
The court said Mr. Bo was found to have received bribes in excess of 20 million Yuan (around Rs. 20 crore), either personally or through his family members. He had also abused his power as a leading politician when he covered up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, who had been poisoned by Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, over a business dispute.
Judge Wang Xuguang said Mr. Bo, the son of a once influential Communist “immortal” revolutionary leader, had also been “deprived of political rights for life”, all but ruling out the likelihood of a political comeback. Explaining the heavy sentence, he said Mr. Bo’s actions had “created an extremely adverse social impact and greatly hurt the interests of the country and its people”.
Before Sunday, Mr. Bo’s lawyers and supporters – particularly conservatives and those on the Left who had backed the brand of social welfare-focused and hardline populist politics he engineered as the party boss in Chongqing – had expectations of a lighter 15-year jail term.
But the heavy sentence makes clear that the new leadership under Xi Jinping, which has spoken of using this case to send a strong message on tackling graft, was keen to underscore its seriousness in dealing with the issue amid increasing public dissatisfaction on official corruption.
Mr. Bo has 10 days to appeal the decision at a higher provincial court in Shandong. However, in the Chinese one-party system where the courts are under the ruling party’s thumb, sentences are rarely overturned.
Where Mr. Bo will serve out his term has emerged as a matter of some debate. Local media have speculated that Mr. Bo will be jailed in the Qincheng prison on Beijing’s suburbs, where politicians and those jailed for political crimes have been imprisoned in the past.
But two layers in Beijing The Hindu spoke to last week suggested such a fate was unlikely for “a princeling” with familial and patronage ties across the party. They suggested Mr. Bo might be allowed to serve most of his term under house arrest in Beijing after spending a few years in Qincheng or another special prison. The last Politburo member to be sent to prison was the former Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu, who was jailed for 18 years in 2008. Mr. Chen was subsequently thought to have been released on medical parole.
The verdict was announced on Sunday morning at the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, a towering structure in the heart of this busy provincial capital. With wide interest in the case, the authorities went to great lengths to ensure there were no disruptions to Sunday’s proceedings.
Hundreds of policemen were deployed across central Jinan, with roads surrounding the court complex sealed off early on Sunday morning and officers lining the tree-lined streets. As of Sunday, 5.75 lakh people were following the updates from the Jinan court’s microblog account for the verdict; more than 25,000 people had signed on overnight.
The sentence laid out, in detail, the charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, appearing to almost completely endorse the case put forward by prosecutors during last month’s five-day trial.
The court rejected outright Mr. Bo’s three main points of defence: the mental instability of his wife; loopholes in the testimony of Dalian businessman Xu Ming; and alleged “duress” he faced at the hands of party investigators. The sentence detailed how the Bo family cultivated Mr. Xu and Tang Xiaolin – another Dalian businessman – awarding them contracts while they paid out millions to Mr. Bo’s wife.
Despite his family’s riches, Mr. Bo continues to enjoy wide popularity not only in Chongqing and Dalian, where he served as Party boss, but also across China, seen as a rare charismatic and populist politician. In Chongqing, he launched a corruption crackdown dismantling the local mafia. He became one of the earliest Chinese politicians to effectively tap the public anger towards corruption and inequalities - seen even by CPC officials as the biggest threats to the party's legitimacy.
“The other politicians are just as corrupt, or more corrupt, than Bo Xilai”, one Jinan resident told The Hindu. “At least he did something for the people”.
The sentence did, however, also serve a reminder as to how some CPC officials have come to run their domains as personal fiefdoms. Mr. Bo’s methods in particular alarmed progressives, as he locked up lawyers and political rivals, seized the assets of entrepreneurs, and ran Chongqing as a family enterprise.
Mr. Bo, last month, denied all the charges and mounted a strong defence, saying he had no knowledge of his wife’s dealings. One hour after the judge began reading the long verdict on Sunday morning, he was handcuffed and escorted out of the courtoom. He was smiling as he was led away, defiant until the very end.