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Suspended death sentence in China murder case

HEFEI, China -- The wife of a disgraced Chinese politician was given a suspended death sentence today after confessing to killing a British businessman by poisoning him with cyanide.

A suspended sentence is usually commuted to a life term after 2 years in prison. Sentenced along with the woman, Gu Kailai, was a family aide who was sentenced to 9 years for his involvement in the murder of Neil Heywood, a former family associate, said He Zhengsheng, a lawyer for the Heywood family who attended the sentencing in this eastern China city.

The sentencing closes one chapter of China's biggest political crisis in two decades, but also leaves open questions over the fate of Gu's husband, Bo Xilai, who was dismissed in March as the powerful Communist Party boss of the major city of Chongqing.

Bo's dismissal and his wife's murder trial come at a sensitive time in China, with party leaders handing over power soon to a younger generation. At one time Bo was considered a candidate for a top position.

The lawyer He said he had to discuss the verdict with the Heywood family and did not know whether they would lodge an appeal. "We respect the court's ruling today. Thank you all for your concern," He said.

State media say Gu confessed to intentional homicide at a one-day trial Aug. 9. The reports -- the court has been closed to international media -- say she and Heywood had a dispute over money and Heywood allegedly threatened her son.

The family aide, Zhang Xiaojun, also confessed after being charged as an accessory.

Security was tight outside the court today, with at least a half-dozen police vans on each corner, some of them carrying plainclothes security.

Any ruling in the case would have been politically delicate, and Chinese leaders may have decided to impose a lengthy prison term for fear that a more severe penalty might stir outrage or make Gu look like a scapegoat for her husband, political and legal analysts say. The party says Bo was removed because of unspecified violations.

The British embassy issued a statement today, saying it welcomed the fact China had tried those it had identified as responsible.

The statement said Britain had told China it "wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied."

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