by Carol Huang
Hefei, China, Aug 20, 2012 (AFP) - A Chinese court on Monday handed Gu Kailai, wife of the disgraced leader Bo Xilai, a suspended death sentence for murdering a British man, a lawyer for the victim's family said.
He Zhengsheng, who represented British businessman Neil Heywood's family in court, told reporters Gu had been found guilty and given the death penalty with two years' reprieve -- a sentence that is usually commuted to life in prison.
Gu confessed during her trial this month in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei to killing 41-year-old Heywood by pouring poison down his throat, saying that he had threatened her son after a business deal went sour.
The case brought down her husband Bo, a charismatic but divisive politician, and exposed deep divisions in the ruling Communist party ahead of a generational handover of power due to start later this year.
Bo had been tipped for promotion to the elite group of Communist party leaders that effectively rules China until the allegations against his wife burst into the open, but is now under investigation for corruption.
Zhang Xiaojun, an employee of the Bo family who was charged as an accomplice to the murder, was also found guilty and sentenced to nine years in jail, He said.
Britain said it welcomed China's move to investigate Heywood's death last November, which was initially attributed to a heart attack, although it did not explicitly comment on the verdict.
State news agency Xinhua said even before the hearing began that the evidence against Gu was "irrefutable", but many analysts and media commentators have expressed doubts that she was given a fair trial.
"We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible," Britain's embassy in Beijing said in a statement.
"We consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied."
Two British diplomats attended Gu's trial -- a rare concession in China, where trials involving high-profile political figures are often held in secret.
Political analysts say leaders are eager to draw a line under the controversy, although Monday's verdict will likely shift the spotlight back to Bo, who has not been seen since April and is thought to be under house arrest.
Bo enjoyed strong public support during his tenure as party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing for a tough anti-corruption drive, but his Maoist-style "red revival" campaign alienated moderates in the Communist party.
He also flouted convention by openly lobbying for a spot in the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
Four police officers who worked under him in Chongqing have been tried on charges that they attempted to cover up Heywood's murder, but it remains unclear whether Bo himself will be implicated.
Sources who attended Gu's trial say that there was no reference to Bo, and a lengthy account of the trial issued by Xinhua a day after the seven-hour hearing also made no mention of him.
Xinhua said Gu invited Heywood to Chongqing for a meeting last November, plied him with wine until he became drunk and then poured cyanide mixed with water into his mouth.
The report said she acted after Heywood threatened the couple's 24-year-old son, Bo Guagua, although it did not say what the threats were, and that she blamed her actions on a mental breakdown.
"The story tries to make it look like simply a private matter engineered by Gu without the knowledge, participation or cover up of her husband," Jerome Cohen, a specialist in Chinese law at New York University, told AFP.
"It (the case) reinforces the well-known notion that the party controls everything. The judiciary is told what to do by the party in cases of importance, like this one," he added.
Hu Shuli, editor of the influential Caixin business magazine, also questioned the Xinhua account.
"The story spun about a mother sacrificing herself for her own can hardly deceive anyone," she wrote in an essay posted on the magazine's website.
"The large amounts of money involved bring up the question of corruption. Who are the others involved? Is Bo among them?"
Chinese law states that a suspended death sentence with two years' reprieve can be commuted to life imprisonment or a minimum of 25 years in jail, depending on the defendant's behaviour during the two years.