BEIJING – Popular but controversial Chinese politician Bo Xilai was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Chinese court Sunday. Disgraced by his wife's murder scandal, and his police chief's attempted defection to the USA, Bo was found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, according to the court's microblog.
A guilty verdict was widely expected as defendants in criminal cases in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls the courts, are almost always found guilty. In addition, this was a highly sensitive and political case involving a very senior party member whose unusually public profile and independent streak may have upset senior colleagues ahead of a leadership transition last fall.
The maximum punishment for his crimes was the death penalty, but some observers had predicted between 15 to 20 years, in line with the sentences of the last two Politburo members prosecuted.
The stronger than expected sentence, read out Sunday by a judge in Jinan Intermediate People's Court, in eastern China's Shandong province, delivered life imprisonment for the bribery charges, 15 years for embezzlement and 7 years for abuse of power. The sentences will run concurrently.
Bo, 64, had refused to plead guilty to the charges and showed little remorse. The Chinese system emphasizes that leniency will be offered to those who confess and cooperate. Bo's defiance meant no leniency was due according to Chinese law, state prosecutors said at his trial last month.
The 5-day trial was closely followed in China both for its human drama and the detailed exposure of the elite lifestyle of a Politburo member. The Communist Party, which tightly controls the media in China and censors the Internet, generally succeeds in keeping information about leaders' personal and family lives far from public view.
Bo has the right to appeal within 10 days. Quoting un-named sources, the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper, said Sunday that Bo is likely to appeal against the verdict and sentence. Earlier, the paper reported a letter from Bo to family members, some of whom attended the trial, in which he maintained his name would one day be cleared, just as his father Bo Yibo, a revolutionary hero, was vindicated after being jailed.
Bo had a long government and political career, including a stint as Minister of Commerce. A confident and charismatic personality, in a political culture better known for bland, obedient politicians, he remains popular in the cities of Dalian, in northeast China, which he helped bring to national prominence, and Chongqing in the southwest, where he served as Communist Party secretary, the most senior position, until his downfall in March 2012.
In Chongqing, Bo built up a widely publicized "model" of development as he pushed the economy, built public housing and cracked down on organized crime. He also harked back to the days of Chairman Mao, by organizing campaigns such as mass singing of 'red songs,' which earned him ongoing support by some in China who fear the nation has departed too far from Mao's brand of communism.
Bo's prominence led to speculation that he was campaigning for a seat on the Politburo's Standing Committee, the apex of power in China. His career was curtailed after his former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, tried to defect to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February 2012.
According to testimony at the trial, Bo and Wang fell out over Bo's wife Gu Kailai and the cover-up of her murder of a British businessman in Chongqing in November 2011. Both Gu and Wang have already been jailed in separate trials where both pleaded guilty. At his trial, Bo claimed Wang was in love with Gu, who Bo labeled "insane".