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China's ex-railway minister gets suspended death sentence

A high-profile corruption case in China has ended with a suspended death sentence for the country's former railway minister. Liu Zhijun is the first former official to be convicted since President Xi Jinping toop office.

A court in Beijing handed down the death penalty to Liu Zhijun, the former head of China's Railway Ministry, for bribery and abuse of power on Monday. Liu was given a two-year reprieve by the No. 2 Intermediate People's Court for his cooperation in the investigation and trial, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The former railway minister's illegal activities involved an "especially huge amount of money" and "caused colossal losses in public assets, violating rights and interests of the state and people," according to Xinhua.

The court found that between 1986 and 2011, Liu accepted some 64.6 million Chinese yuan ($10.5 million) in bribes. It also found him guilty of using his status as a top official for the professional benefit of about 11 business associates.

Similar verdicts for Chinese officials have reportedly led to life imprisonment. The Beijing court explained Liu's suspended death sentence on Monday as a just action given that he had remained truthful throughout the process and had helped authorities recover most of the misused funds.

China's railway system has drawn widespread criticism over safety regulations in recent years. Shortly after Liu, 60, lost his post in February 2011, a high-speed train crash claimed the lives of 40 people near the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou.

The government dismantled the Railway Ministry earlier this year, merging it with the Transport Ministry in an effort to boost its efficiency.

Xi follows old path

The outcome echoed vows by the new president, Xi Jinping, to tackle corruption, which he has said could threaten the party's survival. Experts doubted Liu's 10-year prison sentence and two-year reprieve would satisfy the public.

A legal scholar from China's Peking University argued that the ruling on Liu bore strong similarities to cases in past decades, a fact that could undermine Xi's attempt to signal a shift in the government's attitude toward its officials.

"From an anti-corruption perspective, China in the past 30 years has ruled this way in many similar situations, even for higher-ranking individuals. It doesn't mean this is a result of anti-corruption efforts," Peking University scholar He Weifang told the news agency Reuters.

An expert in Chinese politics from Renmin University also refuted the significance of Monday's ruling in Xi's record on tackling corruption.

"If they were to sentence Liu Zhijun to death now, that would generate expectations in the minds of officials and the people that officials of similar seniority would have to be executed," Zhang Ming of Renmin University told the Associated Press.

"The party leadership is reluctant to set up these kinds of expectations because there are so many corrupt officials who might have really sterling, good political connections," Zhang added.

China now awaits the start of another high-profile case - Bo Xilai, the former party chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing, is suspected of accepting bribes and helping cover up his wife's murder of a British businessman.

kms/pfd (AP, AFP, Reuters)