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Why was Gu Kailai spared?

By Madison Park, CNN
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 0920 GMT (1720 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gu Kailai's suspended death sentence didn't surprise China observers
  • Netizens skeptical of verdict, with some questions why Gu was spared
  • China executes highest number of people, Amnesty reports

Hong Kong (CNN) -- At the conclusion of one of China's most high-profile criminal cases, the verdict and sentencing of Gu Kailai did not surprise many observers.

The guilty verdict had been widely expected, as Gu had confessed, during her one-day trial earlier this month, that she and an aide poisoned British businessman Neil Heywood. The high-powered wife of deposed Chinese politician Bo Xilai had blamed a "mental breakdown" for her actions.

In the end Gu escaped with her life after receiving a suspended death sentence, though she'll likely be jailed for life. Her aide, Zhang Xiaojun, also was found guilty Monday in Heywood's death and sentenced to nine years in prison.

The British embassy in Beijing issued a statement saying it did not want the death penalty applied in the case.

"We welcome the fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood, and tried those they identified as responsible," it said. "We 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."

Gu Kailai's links to the UK
Trying to gain access to Gu Kailai trial

But others believe the verdict was a forgone conclusion.

Ahead of the trial, Donald Clarke, professor at George Washington University Law School and writer of the Chinese Law Prof Blog, wrote in an opinion piece: "Most China-watchers assume that proceedings in this case have been tightly controlled to ensure that only the officially approved narrative emerges.

"They assume that the verdict was decided in Beijing before the opening gavel sounded, and that the proceedings were merely a performance for the benefit of the public, a kind of judicial Shakespeare-in-the-park, but without the drama."

Discussions of the Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai were blocked on Sina Weibo, China's popular microblogging site. But Chinese netizens discussed the verdict, alluding to the political saga and voicing skepticism.

"As was expected, they've had a deal earlier," wrote user buzaishiwonaishijidu.

Weibo user sunshinecn2011 wrote, "Delayed death penalty!! And it will turn into a life imprisonment, and then into fixed-term imprisonment, and after several years, it is happy life again."

Some focused on the differences in capital punishment between ordinary citizens and political elites.

One user, Ke Luomu, posted that the death penalty was "a special offer only for ordinary people."

In China, non-violent offenders, such as drug smugglers and food safety violators, can be sentenced to death.

According to Amnesty International, China is believed to carry out the death penalty more than the rest of the world combined.

"China is believed to have executed thousands in 2010 but continues to maintain its secrecy over its use of the death penalty," according to the Amnesty report. "China used the death penalty in 2010 against thousands of people for a wide range of crimes that include non-violent offenses and after proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards."

The most popular comments on CNN's story about Gu carried similar themes.

"China executes thousands of people every year, including those convicted of crimes like corruption and drug trafficking. And yet this woman, found guilty of a cold-blooded homicide, is spared. I guess being married to a party official -- even a fallen one -- does have its privileges," wrote one user called Babalawo.

Another CNN commenter questioned the severity of Gu's sentence compared with dissidents in the country.

"Li Wangyang convicted for taking part in Tiananmen Square protest sentenced to 22 years jail... Liu Xiaobo (nobel peace prize winner) convicted of ' Inciting subversion of state power ' for writing part of charter 08 sentenced to 11 years jail. And the list goes on... Way to demonstrate China's rule of law?? So people with independent ideas or thoughts are viewed as more of a threat that a cold-blooded murderer?"

CNN's Dayu Zhang, Steven Jiang and intern Sisi Tang contributed to this report.

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