China hints at lenient sentence against ex-cop

China hints at lenient sentence against ex-cop

September 18th, 2012 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

Chinese people play cards on the pavement near the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court in Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan province Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. The trial of Wang Lijun, an ex-police chief at the center of China's worst political scandal in decades, started unexpectedly at the court Monday, a day earlier than the court had announced. At the height of his career, Wang led a police crackdown on the violent underworld in a sprawling metropolis, arresting hundreds of gangsters and government officials, some of whom were sentenced and executed in a matter of months. Now the former police chief is in the hands of the opaque Chinese justice he once brandished against others.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

CHENGDU, China - China signaled Tuesday it will be lenient with an ex-police chief enmeshed in a political scandal roiling the country's leadership, saying he cooperated with investigators who brought down a top Chinese politician's wife for the murder of a British businessman.

Wang Lijun's trial in Chengdu city's Intermediate Court concluded Tuesday without a verdict after two half-day sessions that were closed to the foreign media. Afterward, a court spokesman summarized the proceedings for reporters, saying Wang initially covered up the murder of Briton Neil Heywood.

But, the spokesman said, Wang later turned himself in and provided information to investigators that led to a murder conviction against Heywood's business associate Gu Kailai, the wife of Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai. She received a suspended death sentence.

The proceedings bring Chinese leaders a step closer to resolving the scandal that exposed seamy infighting and buffeted a delicate transfer of power to new leaders expected to take place next month.

The trial summary briefly described Wang's role in covering up the murder last year, saying that he "knew perfectly well" that Gu was under "serious suspicion" for the crime all along. It said that although he helped cover it up, both the prosecutors and defense lawyers told the court that he later cooperated with authorities.

The emphasis in the court's statement on Wang's cooperation suggests authorities may give him a lighter sentence. In its summary, the court said three times that Wang's cooperation and his surrender to authorities may merit lighter punishments.

The crimes he faces are generally punishable by up to 10 years in prison with a 20-year maximum for consecutive sentences, though sentencing guidelines allow for life imprisonment or the death penalty in egregious cases.

The scandal erupted after Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February with information that Heywood - whose death in November was initially ruled as either from excessive drinking or a heart attack - was in fact murdered and that Gu was a suspect. After a 33-hour stay at the consulate, Wang gave himself up to Chinese authorities.

Absent in the trial summary was any mention of Bo, Wang's longtime boss and Gu's husband. Bo was removed as Chongqing's chief and suspended from the Politburo and his fate remains the thorniest issue his colleagues must still resolve.

The scandal would have stayed under wraps but for Wang's disclosure to U.S. diplomats. Following British demands for a full investigation, Chinese leaders were forced to make public scandalous details that it would have preferred to keep private, further dirtying the Communist Party's already soiled image to the public.

The fall-out saw the Chinese leadership devote energies to damage control just as they were engaging in tricky back-channel politicking to choose the country's next generation of leaders.

Leaders must decide whether to expel Bo from the party and prosecute him, and differences are believed to have delayed announcing dates for a party congress to install the new leadership.

In the trial, Wang "did not raise objections" to the charges of defection, abuse of power, bribe-taking and bending the law for personal gain, and the court found him to be in "good health and stable mood," said court spokesman Yang Yuquan. Footage of the trial aired by state broadcaster showed Wang appearing somber but still looking young for his 52 years.

While prosecutors argued that as a senior official in possession of state secrets Wang's defecting was a serious crime, they and his lawyer also said that he surrendered to authorities, Yang said. Once in custody, Wang related his suspicions about Bo's wife - referred to in court documents as Bogu Kailai. Yang said that Wang also provided information that helped in investigating other people, who were not identified.

Wang "took the initiative to expose the Bogu Kailai murder case to relevant departments and made an important contribution to the solving of the case," Yang quoted Wang's lawyer as telling the court.

In the official account, the lawyer further argued "Wang had a reason for defecting" that he voluntarily left the consulate, and subsequently related the facts behind his defection accurately.