Beijing: Bo Xilai
, the pugnacious Chinese politician whose downfall shook the Communist Party, was sentenced to life in prison Sunday after a court found him guilty of bribetaking, embezzlement and abuse of power in a failed attempt to stifle murder allegations against his wife.
The sentence means Bo, the son of a Communist revolutionary leader, is unlikely to ever return to public life, unless there is an extraordinary reversal in his political fortunes.
Given the Communist Party's tight control of the judiciary, there was never much doubt that the Jinan Intermediate People's Court in eastern China would find Bo guilty. Even before the verdict, commentaries in state-run news media declared that Bo's guilt was clear.
Yet until the end, Bo remained defiant, pleading not guilty and contesting nearly every aspect of the prosecutors' case during his trial in August. Family associates have said Bo would most likely appeal his sentence.
Party leaders under President Xi Jinping had hoped that prosecuting Bo, once an ambitious member of the elite Politburo, would demonstrate the party's determination to tame the rampant official corruption that has stoked public ire, posing a potential threat to their hold on power. The government orchestrated an unusually public and lengthy trial for Bo lasting five days, and a court microblog gave the public selective but plentiful and salacious details of the proceedings, which included allegations of adultery by both Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai.
But the courtroom drama also let the public peer into a privileged world of dizzying wealth and nonchalant excess. Prosecutors described a casual rapport between Bo's family and a businessman, Xu Ming, who paid for the travel and the extravagant purchases of Bo's wife and younger son, including a $3.2 million villa in France, a $12,000 Segway and a flight aboard a private jet to Tanzania. During the trial, the prosecution said Bo had taken $4.4 million in bribes and embezzled money. Bo countered that he had been unaware of the gifts and payments.
The court gave Bo a small victory. Although it found him culpable for taking bribes worth $3.2 million, it said there was insufficient evidence concerning the air travel, which it said was worth about $218,000.
But many Chinese citizens believe that that lavish lifestyle is typical for families of senior officials, not the depraved aberration presented in state-run news media. And Bo's supporters, who have remained vocal despite censorship, have argued that he is the victim of a political vendetta aimed at thwarting his populist ambitions. "The stupidest TV writers couldn't come up with plots like that," Bo said at his trial, responding to the prosecution's claims.
Like the trial, the hearing during which Bo was sentenced was closed to foreign journalists, and there was no video feed of the proceedings. According to the Jinan court's microblog, those allowed inside the courtroom Sunday included three family members, two associates and 22 members of the news media. "Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done," the microblog feed said Saturday.
Before reading out the sentence, the judge, Wang Xuguang, rejected Bo's defense, including claims that his long hours of interrogation were abusive and thus illegal. He also brushed away the defendant's assertion that Gu had psychological problems that rendered unreliable her testimony against her husband.
Bo, 64, was removed from his post as Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, in southwest China, in March 2012, over a month after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, took refuge in a nearby U.S. Consulate for nearly 36 hours. There, and later under questioning by Chinese investigators, Wang implicated Bo's wife in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was fatally poisoned in a Chongqing hotel villa in November 2011.
Gu was convicted in August 2012 and given a suspended death sentence, which is tantamount to life in prison. In September, Wang was convicted of defection and other crimes and given a 15-year sentence.
A more complete version of what Bo said during his trial revealed the lengths to which the government sought to stage-manage the narrative, especially comments he made that could raise questions about the government's tactics or damage the party's public standing.
According to testimony from the court proceedings obtained by The New York Times, Bo said interrogators threatened his family during hundreds of hours of interrogations that caused him to faint more than a dozen times.
He also parried the abuse-of-power allegations against him by implicating the party agency he said had ordered him to cover up the emerging scandal over Heywood's murder. He said the Central Politics and Law Commission told him to create a fake medical report attributing Wang's decision to seek refuge inside the US Consulate to a mental breakdown. At the time, the commission was led by Zhou Yongkang, a recently retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee who had been cultivating Bo as a potential successor.
In recent weeks, several senior figures who rose to power under Zhou's tutelage have been detained by anti-corruption investigators in what analysts say could be an effort to extinguish his lingering influence.
Despite the revelations at the trial, Bo has retained support among Chinese people who see him as a charismatic advocate of left-leaning policies.
Some said Bo would remain a symbolic leader, even in prison.
"This was a stiff sentence. He should have been found not guilty, if the law was truly applied," said Han Deqiang, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics who has been among Bo's most passionate defenders. "This shows that power is bigger than the law, that politics is bigger than the law."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service