BEIJING // The suspended death sentence given yesterday to Gu Kailai, wife of the fallen Chinese official Bo Xilai, was the punishment observers expected she would receive for poisoning a British businessman.
Yet questions remain after the verdict in the bizarre case of an apparently unstable lawyer who used cyanide to kill Neil Heywood in a hotel room in her husband's former stronghold of Chongqing.
Given that the trial lasted just a day, was not open to foreign media and that courts in China operate on the orders of the Communist Party, observers remain sceptical about the official account of events.
Among myriad conspiracy theories has even been the suggestion that the woman who appeared in court this month and failed to contest the charge that she had killed Heywood was not Gu.
She had claimed Heywood, a 42-year-old businessman, threatened Bo Guagua, her son with Mr Bo, following a financial dispute.
Court official Tang Yigan yesterday said the court in Hefei, in eastern China, rejected the suggestion Heywood intended to kill Bo Guagua, but judges took into account Gu's confession, remorse and "psychological impairment" at the time of the "despicable" crime in November.
As a result, they avoided having to order the execution of the wife of a senior politician who retains much public support. Gu is likely to see her sentence converted into life imprisonment in two years' time and it could ultimately be cut to 25 years in jail.
"This verdict is just. It shows special respect for the law, reality and life," Gu said when she returned to court for sentencing yesterday.
In a country where people are executed for less serious crimes than homicide, the absence of an immediate death penalty for the 53-year-old "doesn't stand up from a legal standpoint", the Beijing rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told media. It also prompted an angry online reaction.
"Bigwig gets death sentence with reprieve for murder, while common people get immediate execution. Where's the justice?" a user of the Sina Weibo microblog wrote, Agence-France Presse reported.
Zhang Xiaojun, a family aide who brought Heywood from Beijing to Chongqing, and prepared the cyanide poison that Gu is said to have forced the businessman to drink, was given a nine-year jail term.
Sentences from five to 11 years in jail were given to four policemen who attempted to cover up the killing of Heywood, who the authorities initially said had died from excessive alcohol consumption.
Attention now turns to Mr Bo. He was removed as party secretary in the populous south-western Chongqing municipality in March, a month after his police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu and raised the alarm over Heywood's death.
In April, Mr Bo was suspended from the politburo, accused of "severe discipline violations", and he may face criminal prosecution once party disciplinary procedures are completed.
It seems unlikely the 63-year-old's fate will be resolved before the 18th Communist Party congress in October, at which he had hoped for promotion to the supreme nine-member politburo standing committee.
"If the party thinks he's committed some crimes I'm sure he will be put to the court. At this stage we don't know. [Either way] I don't think he will be seen in public again. Never," said Ting Wai, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
In Chongqing, Mr Bo attracted attention for a campaign of Communist Party nostalgia that including the singing of revolutionary songs, ambitious public housing projects and a controversial crackdown on organised crime.
His wife, once a high-flying lawyer, focused in recent years on managing the education of their son, who attended the same elite English private school as Heywood, before going to Oxford.
She also took on business interests but, in an interview three years ago, Bo Guagua said his mother had become "a hermit" after ending her legal career.
Her killing of Heywood provided her husband's opponents on the party's liberal wing, who opposed his "Chongqing model" of state intervention in the economy and egalitarian policies, with a reason to remove him.
The Bo affair has not so much put into question the Communist Party's legitimacy as highlighted the diversity of views held on how the country should develop, sai Wu Fenshi, an assistant professor and political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Online discussion indicates, she said, that a lot of people favour Mr Bo's policies.
"There are supporters of the Chongqing model within the state system as well as within the public," she said.