Wife 'may escape death sentence'

Chinese leaders may spare a politician's wife the death penalty for killing British businessman Neil Heywood, fearing it might incite public sympathy, analysts said.

The conclusion of Gu Kailai's trial will be a step towards closing a scandal that has rocked the Chinese leadership as it prepares to hand over power to younger leaders.

The court is due to deliver its verdict on Monday.

Questions remain over the fate of her husband, Bo Xilai, a prominent figure who was dismissed in March as party secretary of the major city of Chongqing.

Analysts say Communist Party bosses might have decided against a death sentence for fear it might stir outrage or make Gu look like a scapegoat for her husband.

Gu is accused of killing Mr Heywood after having a dispute over money and fearing that he had threatened her son's safety. State media reports say Gu confessed to the killing. Family aide Zhang Xiaojun has been named as an accessory to Mr Heywood's murder.

Gu is said to have admitted intentional homicide, for which the penalty ranges from 10 years in prison to death. One option is a suspended death sentence that can be commuted later to a long prison term. Chinese courts regularly impose death sentences for murder, rape and some non-violent crimes.

Any ruling will be politically delicate and Chinese leaders might have decided to impose a lengthy prison term instead of death for fear a more severe penalty might stir outrage or give Gu the image of a scapegoat for her husband's misdeeds, political and legal analysts say. The party says Bo was removed due to unspecified violations. If Gu becomes a target of sympathy, the scandal that has embarrassed China's government will drag on.

"If you execute her, what about Bo Xilai? You should also execute Bo Xilai, because when the story becomes fully known, it's highly likely that people will think that she was just a scapegoat for the whole thing," said Cheng Li, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. "Then if you want to put Bo Xilai on the death penalty, that's a really, really dangerous thing."

No senior leader has been sentenced to death in recent decades, and having a party-controlled court system impose such a penalty could open the door to its use in future power struggles. Zhang is expected to receive a lighter penalty.