JINAN, China >> A court sentenced Bo Xilai to life in prison for corruption Sunday, burying the career of one of China’s most up-and-coming politicians and lowering the curtain on a scandal that exposed a murder and illicit enrichment among the country’s elite.
The former Politburo member and Chongqing city party leader was convicted of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power today in a case set in motion by his wife’s poisoning of a British business associate in late 2011. It also was widely regarded as a political prosecution and a sign that top leaders had turned against the charismatic populist.
The Jinan Intermediate People’s Court deprived Bo of political rights for life and confiscated all his personal assets. A lawyer with direct knowledge of the case said Bo indicated that the verdict was unjust and was expected to appeal, but observers say he has little chance of success. He has 10 days to appeal.
"It’s a political death sentence for him," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "As long as the current circumstances stay, he cannot come back."
Despite fears of public strife or brutal political infighting spearheaded by Bo’s supporters within the leadership, there has been no major groundswell of backing for Bo, either within the Communist Party or in the public — although he remains popular among many Chinese.
The party deftly managed the potential aftershocks of the case partly by keeping the charges focused on Bo’s corruption and keeping politics out of the trial, said Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at the University of Brussels.
"The leadership has been successful because it had a clear criminal case against Bo, because it deterred Bo’s entourage from politicizing the trial, and because it matched Bo’s populism with its own promises to rip out corruption, boost growth and build a strong country," Holslag said.
In a departure from the choreographed proceedings of other recent political trials, Bo had launched an unusually vigorous defense while on the stand last month. He denied all charges and blamed the corruption on others in his inner circle, including his wife, forgoing the leniency customarily given in Chinese courts when a defendant expresses contrition.
The charges had likely been tailored to offer a lighter sentence had Bo cooperated with prosecutors, but he declined to play along, said Willy Lam, an expert on Communist Party politics at Chinese University in Hong Kong.
"He was punished for his disobedience and defiance," Lam said.
Bo also became the highest-level politician convicted for corruption under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has staked his reputation on combatting graft among Communist Party members and cleaning up their image of luxurious lifestyles that has angered the Chinese public.
"The leadership wants to send a signal that this is a serious matter," Yang said.
In keeping with the trial’s high profile — and the remarkable degree of transparency in which the court proceedings took place — state broadcaster CCTV ran a special bulletin on the verdict and sentence at the top of the nationwide noon news report.
In its coverage, it showed Bo wearing a white dress shirt and slacks as he stood in court with a resigned smile, flanked by two burly police officers. He was led out in handcuffs following the sentencing, which was announced on the court’s microblog shortly before 11 a.m.
The court sentenced Bo to life in prison on the bribery charges, 15 years for embezzlement and seven years for abuse of power.
The court rejected Bo’s defense that he did not know about the $3.5 million in bribes from two business associates in the form of cash and valuable gifts to his family — including a French villa, expenses-paid trips and fancy delicacies such as abalone. However, the court said a small portion of the bribes alleged by prosecutors, about $160,000, were not proven in court.
The court also found that Bo embezzled $160,000 from a secret government project in the northern city of Dalian.
The trial proceedings had been publicized through partial transcripts that gave a measure of legitimacy to a trial seen by many observers to have a foregone conclusion of guilt because of the party’s control over the court system.
"This is a big victory for Xi Jinping’s leadership, because you cannot say this is a secretive trial. It is at least a semi-open trial," said Li Cheng, an expert of elite politics at Brookings Institute. "Bo’s political career is zero, and the trial really transformed Bo from a charismatic leader to a self-indulging person."
Han Deqiang, a Beijing university professor and a supporter of Bo, expressed his disappointment with the verdict, saying it negated Bo’s policies aimed at narrowing the wealth gap in China.
"If the gap continues to widen, the left will only become stronger," Han said. "He has no chance to come back under the current political system, but how long can the current political system last? Then, he may have a chance."
Bo is still popular in the regions where he served, especially in Chongqing, where he was party chief from 2007 to 2012. Bo had campaigned against organized crime, built affordable housing, and promoted Maoist songs and mass gatherings as a way of building his popularity among the city’s 30 million residents.
His popularity was seen as a challenge to the party’s leadership as they sought to guide Xi and party No. 2, Li Keqiang, into power while retaining influence for now-retired leaders.
Bo’s downfall was set in motion in February 2012 when his former top aide attempted to defect to a U.S. consulate with information about his wife’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, just as leaders were preparing the once-a-decade leadership transition.
Bo had been seen as a contender in the transition for China’s top leadership panel, the Politburo Standing Committee, but he also had unnerved many colleagues in the leadership with self-promotion seen as running counter to their brand of consensus rule.
Prosecutors later accused Bo of interfering with the probe into the murder, as well as unrelated corruption uncovered by investigators. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, confessed to the murder and was handed a suspended death sentence last year that will likely be commuted to life imprisonment.
Bo’s disappearance into custody in March 2012 sparked huge public fascination with the scandal, along with wild speculation about coups and assassination attempts.
Both Bo and the party leadership stuck "to a large part of the script, so to speak," steering clear of larger political issues during the trial, said Joseph Cheng, an expert on Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.
There was no mention of intra-party power struggles, Bo’s attempts to challenge the central leadership, or any attempts to implicate other senior leaders, Cheng said.
Bodeen reported from Beijing. Associated Press writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.