BEIJING — The verdict was as unsurprising as the backstory to the trial was shocking and convoluted: Guilty. On Monday morning, Gu Kailai, the 53-year-old wife of China's dethroned political heavyweight Bo Xilai, was given a suspended death sentence for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. The sentence will likely be commuted after two years to life in prison. The man said to have been her accomplice, 32-year-old Zhang Xiaojun, a former PLA soldier turned aide to the Bo household, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
According to the official narrative of the crime -- the Aug. 9 courtroom proceedings were reported exclusively by China's state-run Xinhua newswire, which acts as a coordinated organ of the state, not an independent body reporting on it -- here is how the murder unfolded:
Heywood perished in room 1605 of the 16th building of Chongqing's Lucky Holiday Hotel, a secluded yellow compound with views of the Yangtze River. The 41-year-old Briton checked in on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, one day after he'd received a phone call in Beijing from Gu's aide, Zhang, that she wished to meet with him in Chongqing for an unspecified reason. Since at least 2005, Heywood had been a business associate of the Bo family, facilitating connections with foreign companies and possibly more.
By Paul French
On Sunday, Gu visited his hotel room at around 9 p.m. She carried alcohol and tea, while Zhang waited in the hallway with two glass bottles: one contained a cyanide-laced poison, and the other drug capsules, which would be part of a cover-up story. Some time later, Heywood became so intoxicated drinking with Gu that he went to vomit in the bathroom. At Gu's orders, Zhang then entered the room and helped to drag Heywood's body to the bed. Heywood asked for water, but Gu dripped the cyanide compound into his mouth instead. Whether or not he registered what was happening to him was not specified. She later scattered the drug capsules nearby, perhaps to give the impression of an accidental overdose.
When Gu and Zhang left the room, she flipped on the door's "Do Not Disturb" light and instructed hotel staff not to enter.
A sufficient does of cyanide inhibits the body's cellular ability to utilize oxygen. Difficulty breathing and a sense of vertigo is followed by seizures and cardiac arrest. Death can occur within a few minutes. The victim's skin will turn a telltale dark pink to red; often the corpse will smell faintly of an odor like bitter almonds.
Another day and evening passed before Tuesday morning, when officials from Chongqing's Public Security Bureau arrived to inspect the body. In the course of their initial investigation, according to courtroom testimony, samples were collected of Heywood's vomit and of blood from his heart. Gu, the wife of Chongqing's top party boss, quickly emerged as a top suspect based on evidence gathered by the police, but the police department, then headed by Wang Lijun, decided to forge crime-scene interviews and other evidence pointing to another conclusion. Heywood's body was cremated in Chongqing without a full autopsy. His official cause of death was listed as a heart attack triggered by excessive alcohol consumption.
As to motive, the Xinhua report states -- with little concrete or critical explanation -- that after a failed business deal between Gu and Heywood, Gu believed that an angry Heywood was a threat to the life of her son, Bo Guagua, then a student at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "This case has been like a huge stone weighing on me for more than half a year. What a nightmare. During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy," Gu read aloud from prepared remarks in the course of her speedy seven-hour trial. "I must fight to my death to stop the craziness of Neil Heywood."
In the style of a Chinese self-criticism, Gu dutifully added: "The case has produced great losses to the party and the country, for which I ought to shoulder the responsibility, and I will never feel at ease ... I solemnly tell the court that in order to maintain the dignity of the law, I will accept and calmly face any sentence and I also expect a fair and just court decision."
That's the official story, but aspects of this account strain credulity.