Beijing's high court yesterday recommended that a suspended death sentence for the wife of former political heavyweight Bo Xilai be commuted to life in prison, after she repented and committed no further crimes.
Observers say this could be an attempt to foster harmony ahead of an upcoming leadership transition in the Communist Party, as the court announced a similar recommendation for former railways minister Liu Zhijun the same day.
Gu Kailai was sentenced in August 2012 for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. The scandal led to the downfall of her husband Bo, who had been tipped for the country's top positions.
According to statements posted on the court's website yesterday, the prison where Gu is serving her term applied last year for her penalty to be reduced. Gu had "complied with prison rules and discipline", "participated in ideological, cultural, technological learning" and "completed labour tasks on time", the prison said.
The court said she had "certainly shown repentance", making her eligible for commutation.
Lawyers told The Straits Times that courts in China have to decide within two years whether to commute suspended life sentences to life imprisonment.
"If they don't commit any crime during this period, it's normally commuted," said Beijing-based lawyer Mo Shaoping. "When they decide to make the announcement, however, may be subject to other procedural delays."
Yesterday's announcement underscores the political sensitivities surrounding Gu's case.
"Announcing that her sentence has been commuted on the same day as Liu's is an attempt at fostering harmony within the Communist Party - or at least projecting a facade of it," political analyst Willy Lam told The Straits Times.
Dr Lam pointed out that Liu, who was given a suspended death penalty in 2013 for a corruption scandal, was at one time close to former president Jiang Zemin, while Bo's downfall upset many fellow princelings, or descendants of revolutionary elders, in the party.
"By the middle of next year, the party will have to start looking at leadership transition ahead of the party congress in 2017, so it's important to start promoting harmony," he added.
In China, life imprisonment can be reduced for good behaviour, but cannot be less than 13 years.