Last updated: August 20, 2012 10:14 pm

Gu verdict provokes online uproar

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Gu Kailai©Reuters

Gu Kailai stands in the defendant's dock during her trial at Hefei Intermediate People's Court in this still image taken from video

The verdict and sentence in China’s most sensational trial in 30 years were virtually foregone conclusions but they have still provoked an uproar in the country’s unruly, outspoken social media.

On Monday, Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, who was until recently one of China’s most powerful Communist leaders, was sentenced to death – suspended for two years – for the murder of UK business consultant Neil Heywood.

Such a sentence is almost always commuted to life in prison.

At the same time, Zhang Xiaojun, a former bodyguard and household servant to Gu’s family, was jailed for nine years for helping her poison Heywood in a hotel room in Chongqing in south-west China last November.

With China’s criminal conviction rate at more than 98 per cent and confessions from both Gu and Zhang, there was no surprise when the court in the southern Chinese city of Hefei announced its guilty verdict.

But the fact that Gu evaded the death penalty despite being found guilty of premeditated murder lit up the Chinese internet with outrage that a member of the political elite was seemingly receiving special treatment.

“The public reaction [to the verdict] illustrates how much harder it is for the Communist party to frame events in the same top-down way it used to,” said Jonas Parello-Plesner, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The power of social media makes it very difficult for the party to control the message.”

On Twitter and Chinese microblog sites on Monday many netizens compared Gu’s sentence with that of Xia Junfeng, a vegetable street vendor from north-east China who was sentenced to death in 2009 for the murder of two “city management” officials.

Xia remains on death row but is appealing against the sentence on the grounds that he accidentally killed the two officers in self-defence when they and a dozen of their colleagues savagely attacked him.

His wife and lawyers claim he received an unfair trial and that half a dozen eyewitnesses were not allowed to testify that he was acting in self-defence.

The chengguan or “city management” departments are quasi-police units notorious for their corruption and brutality in dealing with unlicensed street vendors in big cities.

“One person carries out vicious premeditated murder, another person kills in self-defence, the person defending themselves gets the death penalty while the premeditated murderer gets a suspended death sentence and all sorts of special treatment – this is Chinese justice,” wrote a popular activist microblogger known as “the butcher” on Monday.

Others pointed out that Xia had appeared in court in heavy chains and a prison jumpsuit, as most accused criminals do in China, while Gu Kailai was not cuffed and allowed to wear her own clothes at her trial.

Gu is the “princeling” daughter of a top revolutionary general while her husband, Bo Xilai, was one of China’s 25 most powerful officials before his downfall as well as the son of one of China’s founding Communist leaders.

The real number of executions is a state secret but China puts several thousand people to death each year, far more than any other country, according to human rights groups and independent estimates based on partial information from the Chinese justice system.

Beijing has gone to great lengths in its propaganda surrounding the trial to present it as a fair and impartial process governed by the country’s laws and judicial procedures.

But party insiders privately acknowledge that the fates of Gu and her accomplice were decided by China’s most senior political leaders rather than by the court in Hefei.

Gu and Zhang’s trial on August 9 lasted barely seven hours in what most observers saw as evidence of the government’s desire to draw a line under the case.

The lurid revelations of corruption, murder and intrigue at the highest levels of the Communist party have been hugely damaging to the ruling party’s image in a year when it hopes to orchestrate only its second peaceful and orderly transition of power since it came to power in 1949.

“The narrative from the party has been to blame a few rotten apples in the provinces for corruption and misdeeds in China,” Mr Parello-Plesner said. “But this case has shown that crime and corruption go to the very top.”

Additional reporting by Gu Yu

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