HEFEI, China – A fallen Chinese politician's wife who confessed to killing a British businessman is due to hear the verdict Monday in her murder trial, and Communist Party leaders may have decided against a death penalty for fear it could incite public sympathy for her.
The conclusion of Gu Kailai's trial will be a step toward closing a scandal that has rocked the Chinese leadership at a sensitive time with a handover soon of power to younger leaders. But even after the verdict is announced, questions will remain over the fate of her husband, Bo Xilai, a prominent figure who was dismissed in March as party secretary of the major city of Chongqing.
Gu is accused of killing Briton Neil Heywood, a former Bo family associate. State media say the two had a dispute over money and Heywood allegedly threatened her son. A family aide has been charged as an accessory.
Heywood's family lawyer, He Zhengsheng, said: "We wait for the court's verdict. We respect the court's decision ... I believe the ruling will be fair and just."
Security was increased at the court ahead of the verdict. Police officers stood guard around the building. At least a half dozen SWAT police vans were parked on each corner, some of them carrying plainclothes security. The main road in front of the entrance was blocked by traffic cones.
State media say Gu confessed to intentional homicide, for which the penalty ranges from 10 years in prison to death. One option is a suspended death sentence that can be commuted later to a long prison term.
Chinese courts regularly impose death sentences for murder, rape and some nonviolent crimes.
Any ruling will be politically delicate, and Chinese leaders might have decided to impose a lengthy prison term instead of death for fear that a more severe penalty might stir outrage or make Gu look like a scapegoat for her husband's misdeeds, political and legal analysts say. The party says Bo was removed due to unspecified violations.
If Gu, whose one-day trial was held here Aug. 9 under heavy guard, becomes a target of sympathy, the scandal that has embarrassed China's government will drag on.
"If you execute her, what about Bo Xilai? You should also execute Bo Xilai, because when the story becomes fully known, it's highly likely that people will think that she was just a scapegoat for the whole thing," said Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
"Then if you want to put Bo Xilai on the death penalty, that's a really, really dangerous thing."
No senior leader has been sentenced to death in recent decades, and having a party-controlled court system impose such a penalty could open the door to its use in future power struggles.
The family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, is expected to receive a lighter penalty.
Francois Godement, a China politics expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said other factors in Gu's favor are that state media say she confessed and a claim that she acted to defend her son after threats by Heywood.
Godement noted that senior leaders and their immediate relatives have been spared the death penalty since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the chaotic 1966-76 period that saw many party elders persecuted by ultraradical Red Guards.
One example is the 1998 corruption conviction of former Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, who like Bo was a member of the party's ruling Politburo. Chen was sentenced to 16 years in prison, while lower-level figures have been put to death in other graft cases.
He Weifang, a legal scholar at Peking University, said he expected Gu's sentence to be somewhere between 15 years' jail and the death sentence with a reprieve. He cited in part Gu's status as the wife of a senior leader whose fate remains unclear even though many believe his political career to be over.
"Immediate execution is very unlikely. Not all intentional homicide cases result in death sentences," He said. "Everyone also still takes into consideration her special background. ... In China, it's impossible to make sure that everyone is equal before the law."
Gu's arrest and the ouster of her husband sparked the biggest political turbulence in China since the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.
The official Xinhua News Agency has depicted Gu as a depressed woman on medication who turned willful murderer after Heywood threatened the safety of her son, Bo Guagua. Gu is accused of luring the victim to a Chongqing hotel, getting him drunk and then pouring cyanide into his mouth.