Chinese Official at Center of Scandal Is Found Guilty and Given a Life Term

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BEIJING -- Bo Xilai, the pugnacious Chinese politician whose downfall shook the Communist Party, was sentenced to life in prison on 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bo guilty. Even before the verdict, commentaries in state-run news media declared that Mr. Bo's guilt was clear.

Yet until the end, Mr. Bo remained defiant, pleading not guilty and contesting nearly every aspect of the prosecutors' case during his trial in August. Family associates have said Mr. Bo would most likely appeal his sentence.

Party leaders under President Xi Jinping had hoped that prosecuting Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bo's family and a businessman, Xu Ming, who paid for the travel and the extravagant purchases of Mr. 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 Mr. Bo had taken $4.4 million in bribes and embezzled money. Mr. Bo countered that he had been unaware of the gifts and payments.

The court gave Mr. 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 Mr. 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," Mr. Bo said at his trial, responding to the prosecution's claims.

In a recent letter that he wrote to his family from jail and that has been circulating among his close associates, Mr. Bo asserted his innocence and maintained his trademark defiance, declaring that his name would one day be cleared -- much like that of his father, Bo Yibo, who was jailed at least twice by his enemies but emerged to become one of the Communist Party's most revered luminaries.

Details of the letter, first published by the South China Morning Post, were confirmed by two family associates. "I will follow his footsteps," Mr. Bo wrote of his father's rehabilitation. "I will wait quietly in the prison."

Tong Zhiwei, a professor at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said the life sentence was to be expected, given that Mr. Bo remained combative to the end and because he offered little of the contrition expected of fallen officials.

"The fact that he didn't plead guilty probably led to a heavier sentence" Mr. Tong said. "But on the other hand, it was also relatively lenient, because in the past, not pleading guilty to bribetaking on this scale has been very rare and could bring a death penalty."

He added that Mr. Bo's sentence could later be reduced if he showed contrition and behaved well. "There's that possibility, but he'll probably have to serve at least a dozen or more years before that's even possible," he said.

Like the trial, the hearing during which Mr. 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 on 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 on Saturday.

Before reading out the sentence, the judge, Wang Xuguang, rejected Mr. 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 Ms. Gu had psychological problems that rendered unreliable her testimony against her husband.

Mr. Bo, 64, was removed from his post as Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, in southwest China, in March 2012, more than a month after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, took refuge in a nearby United States Consulate for nearly 36 hours. There, and later under questioning by Chinese investigators, Mr. Wang implicated Mr. Bo's wife in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was fatally poisoned in a Chongqing hotel villa in November 2011.

Ms. Gu was convicted in August 2012 and given a suspended death sentence, which is tantamount to life in prison. In September, Mr. Wang was convicted of defection and other crimes and given a 15-year sentence.

The judge said the court had established that Mr. Bo's conduct was the main reason the murder of Mr. Heywood "was not dealt with promptly and according to the law" and why Mr. Wang fled to the consulate in what he described as a treasonous act. The court said of these episodes: "They created particularly malign social consequences, and brought major harm to the interests of the state and the people."

After Mr. Bo was expelled from the Politburo and Communist Party, he was handed over to the authorities for a criminal investigation on several charges, including allegations of corruption, as well as charges that he tried to stymie an inquiry that threatened to expose Ms. Gu's role in Mr. Heywood's death.

A more complete version of what Mr. 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, Mr. Bo said interrogators threatened his family during hundreds of hours of interrogations that caused him to faint more than 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 Mr. Heywood's murder. He said the Central Politics and Law Commission told him to create a fake medical report attributing Mr. Wang's decision to seek refuge inside the United States 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 Mr. Bo as a potential successor.

In recent weeks, several senior figures who rose to power under Mr. Zhou's tutelage have been detained by anticorruption investigators in what analysts say could be an effort to extinguish his lingering influence.

Despite the revelations at the trial, Mr. Bo has retained support among Chinese people who see him as a charismatic advocate of left-leaning policies.

Some said Mr. 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 Mr. Bo's most passionate defenders. "This shows that power is bigger than the law, that politics is bigger than the law."

But Fang Hong, a resident of Chongqing who was sent to a labor camp because he had mocked Mr. Bo, said the court and government had erred in failing to confront Mr. Bo's broader misdeeds as that city's party secretary, especially the abuses he unleashed during his crackdown on alleged organized crime.

"Actually, this was a relatively light sentence, compared to what other officials might get," said Mr. Fang, whose sentence was overturned last year after Mr. Bo's downfall. "If the government doesn't confront these problems, they can happen again."

Andrew Jacobs reported from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Jonathan Ansfield and Edward Wong contributed reporting from Beijing.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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