A court in China's eastern city of Heifei, which prosecuted 53-year-old Gu Kailai for murder in the poisoning death of British businessman Neil Heywood last November gave her a suspended death sentence, which usually means a life sentence in China. Her family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, who was a co-defendant, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
The court in sentencing Gu took into account her mental state and her concerns for the safety of her son, court officials said.
The Gu Kailai trial and her sentencing ended one of the most sensational cases in China and had been enormously significant because of her husband. Bo Xilai had been the chief of the Communist Party in the large city of Chongqing and had been a fast-rising party official on track to become a Politburo member before being ousted in March for alleged disciplinary violations.
The trial also came at a time when the party is preparing for China's once-a-decade leadership change set for later this year.
The New York Times said the entire case seems to have triggered public anger and cynicism.
While supporters of Bo, who still are numerous because of his populist policies, spoke of a grand political conspiracy, legal experts pointed to inconsistencies in the trial. Liberals, meanwhile, said Gu's case was evidence of their leaders believing they can even get away with murder.
"For many people, the party was just trying to use the justice system for their own purposes, but they did it in such a way that made everyone laugh," Ai Weiwei, a Chinese who spent 81 days in extralegal detention last year for criticizing the government, was quoted as saying. "It's obvious to everyone that they came up with the sentence before the facts were known."
Even though Gu escaped with what is seen as a life sentence, The Times said good behavior can bring her term to 25 years and quoted a San Francisco group seeking reforms in the Chinese criminal justice system as saying psychological issues mentioned in Gu's case could lead to a medical parole in less than 10 years.
In its reporting of the sentence, China's official Xinhua news agency quoted Wang Xiuqin, a member of the provincial political advisory body who attended the trial and the sentencing, as saying: "Legal justice is being upheld. Everyone is equal before the law. The judicial authorities have made known their stance of safeguarding the dignity of the law."
Many legal observers, however, said Gu, herself a trained lawyer, would have known precisely what she was doing at the time Heywood was poisoned by cyanide, The Times said.
"She planned the crime herself, put the poison in his mouth herself, destroyed the evidence herself but didn't turn herself in," Wang Lianqi, a lawyer and commentator, wrote in a blog post. "Why did she receive a suspended death sentence?"
A posting in the Sina Weibo microblog service, recalling a food peddler on China's death row for fatally stabbing two urban management officials after they beat him, said: "A lawyer who commits premeditated murder gets a suspended death penalty, and a peddler who defends himself gets death. This is the Chinese justice system."
The Wall Street Journal also quoted legal experts as saying Gu could enjoy the comfort of prison reserved for high political figures and later be freed on medical parole in as little as nine years.
Analysts told the Journal the Chinese leadership had hoped to convince its people through Gu's sentencing that the party's elite are not above the law. But they said the court's decision to spare the death penalty risked undermining the credibility of the process among those who are increasingly reliant on the Internet than on the state media.
The Journal said that in an online reaction to the court sentencing, Yao Bo, a popular newspaper columnist and social commentator, said, "How wonderful life is, how handy the law can be, as long as you have the party to protect you."
CNN reported that to some observers the verdicts had been a foregone conclusion.