Bo Xilai case: Police chief Wang Lijun gets 15 years, avoids death penalty

The relatively light sentence for the former police chief, whose visit to a US consulate in February triggered the downfall of one of China’s highest political leaders, was handed down on Monday.

CCTV via AP video/AP
In this video image taken from CCTV, Wang Lijun speaks during his trial at the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012.

The former police chief whose attempted defection to the United States uncorked China’s biggest political scandal in decades was sentenced Monday to 15 years in jail.

The relatively mild sentence – Wang Lijun could have faced the death penalty – reflected his cooperation with prosecutors investigating his former high-flying boss, Bo Xilai, say judicial observers.

“Wang Lijun revealed some scandals that are helpful in solving the Bo Xilai case, so he got a lighter sentence than he might have done,” says Tong Zhiwei, a law professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai.

The authorities have laid no criminal charges yet against Mr. Bo, once a contender for a place on the ruling Communist Party’s top body but who was cast down by his wife’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo has not been seen in public since March.

His wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence last month for murdering Mr. Heywood. Wang was jailed for initially helping to cover up that crime, along with other charges of bribery, abuse of power, and defection.

It is still uncertain whether Bo will be brought to trial, or subjected instead to secret party disciplinary action. He was fired from his political leadership posts in March and April.

“If he is not tried the public will not be satisfied,” predicts Professor Tong. “People will be disappointed in the Chinese legal system if the authorities try to protect him from justice.”

Wang was Bo’s right-hand man, who led the controversial politician’s attention-grabbing, and sometimes lawless, anti-mafia crackdown in Chongqing, the megalopolis in southwestern China where Bo was Communist Party secretary.

He also helped cover up Ms. Gu’s crime after the party boss’ wife fell out with her British business partner, Wang admitted at his trial last week according to an account by Xinhua, the state news agency. Then he himself fell out with her and told Bo that he had reason to suspect that she was a murderess, according to Xinhua. Only official media were permitted to attend the trial.

That revelation suggests that Bo may face criminal charges for being an accessory after the fact, participating in the cover-up, since Wang said he told him at the end of January that his wife had poisoned Mr. Heywood.

Bo reacted by demoting Wang from his job as deputy mayor and chief of Chongqing police, whereupon Wang fled to the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu, apparently fearing for his life.

He was eventually persuaded not to seek asylum, and agreed to hand himself in to the Chinese authorities.

During subsequent questioning, Wang “produced important clues that exposed serious offenses committed by others … which could be considered as major meritorious service,” prosecutors said, according to Xinhua.

That seems to have earned him a reasonably light sentence. With good behavior he could be out of jail in less than eight years, says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong based expert on China’s justice system. Wang admitted his guilt and said he would not appeal the sentence. 

Bo’s fate appears linked to the Communist Party’s 18th congress, due to seal a once-in-a-decade change in leadership, which had been expected to open in October. There has been no announcement of the congress, however, leading to suspicions of discord among top party leaders – some of whom were sympathetic to Bo – over how to handle his case.

“The fact there has been no announcement of when the 18th party congress will open raises the possibility that one sticking point is what to do about Bo Xilai,” says Mr. Rosenzweig. 

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