By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's ruling Communist Party took a big step towards sealing the fate of fallen politician Bo Xilai on Monday, when a court jailed his former police chief for 15 years over charges that indicated Bo tried to derail a murder inquiry.
The court in Chengdu in southwest China handed down the sentence against Wang Lijun after finding him guilty on four charges, including seeking to cover up the November 2011 murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai.
The verdict ended the career of one of China's most storied and controversial police officers and moved the party closer to a formal decision on dealing with Bo, whose downfall has shaken a leadership handover due at a party congress as early as next month.
"Wang Lijun exposed clues of major law-breaking and crimes by others," said the court verdict, according to the Xinhua news agency. It did not say who those other people were.
"He rendered a major contribution, and according to the law he can receive a lighter sentence," said the court. Wang could have received life imprisonment, or even a death sentence.
The relatively mild sentence, following official confirmation that Wang shared incriminating clues and that Bo beat him after Wang confronted him over the murder allegations, added weight to predictions that the party will move to jail Bo too, said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University who has closely followed the case.
"The legal net around Bo Xilai has been slowly tightening," said He. "He'll certainly face a criminal trial."
Experts have offered divided views over whether the party will put Bo before a criminal court or spare him and the leadership that disgrace by simply meting out lighter disciplinary punishment within the party. Some still see that latter course as more likely.
Before Chinese authorities can launch a criminal investigation, the party leadership must first hear the results of an internal investigation and decide whether to hand Bo over. That could happen at a leadership conclave that must take place before the bigger party congress convenes.
"I'd guess now that even within a week the party could announce that he has been handed over to legal authorities," said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor who has followed the scandal around Bo.
"If there's not a decision on that (Bo case) soon, then it could be difficult to hold the party congress by mid-to-later October."
THE SLAP THAT CHANGED HISTORY
The court said Wang, former police chief of southwestern Chongqing municipality, received the sentence for "bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking", according to Xinhua.
Wang would not appeal against the sentence, said his lawyer Wang Yuncai, who is not a relative. The sentence could be cut after he serves half his sentence, added Wang, the lawyer.
"He accepted the sentence," she said. "He's doing okay."
The scandal that felled both men erupted after Gu murdered Heywood in a hilltop hotel villa in Chongqing, the city where Bo was the flamboyant party chief.
As well as the conviction for sabotaging an investigation into the murder, Wang was found guilty of defecting to a U.S. consulate, taking bribes and conducting illegal surveillance.
Officials have said the murder arose from a business dispute in Chongqing, which Bo and Wang ran as their fiefdom.
After first helping Gu evade suspicion of poisoning Heywood, Wang hushed up evidence of the murder, according to the official account of Wang's trial. In late January, Wang confronted Bo with the allegation that Gu was suspected of killing Heywood. But Wang was "angrily rebuked and had his ears boxed".
"That was a slap around the ears that changed history," said Li Zhuang, a Beijing lawyer who opposed Wang and Bo for mounting a sweeping crackdown on foes in the name of fighting organized crime. "Otherwise, Bo might still be in power and hoping to rise higher."
Days after the confrontation, Bo stripped Wang of his post as Chongqing police chief. The court verdict said several of Wang's subordinates were "illegally investigated".
"The reports on Wang Lijun's case are clear that Bo was obstructing justice, obstructing the investigation into the homicide case against his wife," said He, the law professor.
Wang, fearing for his safety, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu where he hid for more than 24 hours until Chinese officials coaxed him out.
In August, Gu was sentenced to a suspended death sentence, which effectively means life in prison.
Wang sealed his fate at a trial a week ago by admitting the charges, Xinhua said. Only official media were allowed inside the courtroom in Chengdu, 300 km (190 miles) from Chongqing.
In March, Bo was sacked as Chongqing party boss, and in April he was suspended from the party's Politburo, a powerful decision-making council with two dozen active members.
So far, Bo has been accused only of breaching internal party discipline, and his defenders have accused foes of exploiting the charges against Gu to topple Bo. He had not been given a chance to defend himself publicly since his fall in March.
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang and Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Nick Macfie)