JINAN, China, (Reuters) – A Chinese court sentenced ousted senior politician Bo Xilai to life in jail on Sunday after finding him guilty of corruption and abuse of power, a tough term that gives him little chance of staging a political comeback.
Bo was a rising star in China’s leadership circles and cultivated a loyal following through his charisma and populist, quasi-Maoist policies, especially among those left out in the cold by China’s anything-for-growth economic policies.
But his career was stopped short last year by a murder scandal in which his wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of poisoning a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who had been a family friend.
While Bo has the right to appeal within 10 days from Monday, the sentence effectively puts an end to his political ambitions and the glamorous lifestyle he enjoyed as a member of China’s ruling elite.
The court in the eastern city of Jinan, where Bo was tried, ordered that all his personal assets be seized, and deprived him of his political rights for life, according to a transcript released by the court’s official microblog.
“Bo Xilai was a servant of the state, he abused his power, causing huge damage to the country and its people … The circumstances were especially serious,” the court said in its judgement.
State media said he would probably appeal, in which case the supreme court in Shandong province, where Jinan is located, would have to hear the case within two months. As all courts are party controlled, they are unlikely to overturn the verdict.
While Bo could have been given the death penalty, many observers had felt this was unlikely as the party would not have wanted to make a martyr of him.
Bo did himself few favours with his feisty defence at his five-day trial, said Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “My predication was for shorter,” he said. “His denial of guilt led to a longer sentence.”
The court showed a picture of a handcuffed Bo, with clenched fists in an apparent show of defiance, flanked by two towering policemen who held him by his shoulders and forearms. Two more policemen stood by.
Heavy security and roadblocks around the courthouse kept bystanders back, with no signs of any Bo sympathisers present, unlike at the beginning of his trial when a handful showed up to express support for him.
At the end of Bo’s trial last month, prosecutors demanded a heavy sentence, saying his “whimsical” challenge to charges flew in the face of the evidence. The court rejected Bo’s defence almost entirely, aside from one small section of the bribery charge related to travel expenses for Bo’s wife and their son, Bo Guagua, paid for by businessman Xu Ming, for which it said the prosecution’s case was flawed.
It also rejected Bo’s claims of coming “under psychological pressure” when he said he initially admitted to Communist Party anti-corruption investigators that he had received bribes.
“The pressure Bo Xilai said he came under does not count as being illegal under the rules about forced confession,” it said.
Gu Yushu, a lawyer appointed by Bo’s sister, Bo Jieying, but ultimately denied permission to represent him in court, said he did not believe the evidence submitted justified the sentence.
“The facts were vague and unclear,” he told Reuters.
One of Bo’s most high-profile supporters was, however, unbowed by the sentence.
“Knowing the kind of person he is, he will fight to the end,” said Sima Nan, a well-known defender of Bo’s policies who makes a living appearing on television entertainment shows. “This is like a soap opera and we’re only half-way through.”
The trial gripped China, especially details of the extravagant life of the Bo family, including expensive foreign trips, exotic food and the purchase of a villa on the French Riviera.
The court ordered that the villa, bought for the family by businessman Xu, be confiscated, though it was not immediately clear if that meant the Chinese government would have to present its case for the seizure to a French court.
Bo, 64, who was Communist Party chief of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, mounted an unexpectedly fiery defence during his trial, denouncing testimony against him by his wife as the ravings of a mad woman hoping to have her own sentence reduced.
But the court said Gu was clear-minded in her evidence and there was no basis to say she was hoping for her sentence to be cut.
Bo repeatedly said he was not guilty of any of the charges, though he admitted making some bad decisions and shaming his country by his handling of former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who first told Bo that Gu had probably murdered Heywood.
Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in February last year after confronting Bo with evidence that Gu was involved in the murder. Wang was also jailed last year for covering up the crime.
The state prosecutor had said Bo should not be shown leniency as he had recanted admissions of guilt ahead of his trial. Senior party figures feared Bo could stage a political comeback one day if he was not given a harsh sentence, sources told Reuters after the trial.
A light sentence could have undermined President Xi Jinping’s pledge to go after corrupt political heavyweights as harshly as those lower down the pecking order.
Bo may still end up being released early, said Shang Baojun, a prominent human rights lawyer. “Release on bail and medical parole are both common for government officials,” Shang said.