By John Ruwitch
HEFEI, China (Reuters) - A Chinese court sentenced the wife of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai to death on Monday but suspended her execution, witnesses to the hearing said, ending one chapter of a scandal that has shaken the country and engulfed a leadership transition planned for later this year.
The sentence means that Gu Kailai is likely to face life in jail for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last year, provided she does not commit offences in the next two years.
A court official called by Reuters would not immediately confirm the sentence, saying that a news conference to announce the outcome of the closed-door hearing would be held shortly.
At a trial on August 9, Gu admitted to poisoning businessman Neil Heywood in November, and alleged that a business dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua, according to official accounts published by state media.
"We respect the court's decision," said He Zhengsheng, a lawyer for the Heywood family. He and another witness to the hearing - which was barred to all but a few journalists from official Chinese media - revealed the verdict to throngs of reporters waiting outside the court in eastern Hefei city.
They both also said Zhang Xiaojun, an aide to the Bo household, was sentenced to nine years in prison for acting as an accomplice to the poisoning of Heywood.
Another court witness said Gu, who wore a white shirt and a black suit at the hearing, had won a reprieve from execution because she was suffering a "psychological impairment".
Gu's sentencing could be a prelude to formal punishment of Bo Xilai, a brashly ambitious politician under investigation for alleged violations of party discipline -- an accusation that covers corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds. After the party leadership decides on those allegations, Bo Xilai could also face criminal charges related to the murder case.
Bo's hopes for securing a spot in China's next top leadership unraveled after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate in early February for about 24 hours and exposed the murder allegations.
BRITAIN WELCOMES TRIAL
Britain's embassy in China welcomed Gu's trial on Monday, though it was cautious not to comment directly on the sentence, with a formal announcement on the outcome still pending.
In an e-mailed statement, the embassy said it welcomed the "fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood and tried those they identified as responsible".
It added that Britain had "consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied".
Bo, the son of a revolutionary, ran the southwestern city of Chongqing where Heywood was killed. Bo was seen as competing for a place in the Politburo Standing Committee, the body at the pinnacle of power in China, at a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
His downfall has stirred more division than that of any other leader for over two decades. To leftist supporters, Bo was a charismatic rallying figure for efforts to reimpose party control over dizzying, unequal market-led growth.
But he made powerful enemies among those who saw him as an opportunist who wanted to impose his policies on the country.
Bo was sacked as Chongqing boss in March and Gu was publicly accused of the murder in April, when Bo was suspended from the Politburo, a 25-member elite council that ranks below the Standing Committee. He has yet to be expelled from that council.
Four Chinese policemen have also admitted to charges that they sought to protect Gu from investigation -- a development that could also prove dangerous for Bo.
Police sources in Chongqing have said Bo tried to shut down the investigation into his wife after being told she was a suspect. Bo has not been seen in public since March, when he gave a combative defense of his policies and family at a news conference during China's annual parliament session.
(Additional reporting by Samuel Shen in HEFEI, Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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