A Chinese court has sentenced the wife of disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai to death but suspended her execution.

The sentencing has ended one chapter in a scandal that has shaken the ruling Communist Party ahead of a leadership transition later this year.

It means Gu Kailai is likely to face life in jail for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last year, provided she does not commit offences in the next two years.

"The verdict is just and reflects a special respect toward the law, reality and life," Gu said of the sentence, according to a spokesman for the court.

At a trial on 9 August, Gu admitted to poisoning Mr Heywood last November, and alleged that a business dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua, according to official accounts published by state media.

The court spokesman said it had concluded that Mr Heywood made threatening words against Bo Guagua, but had never acted on those words.

The court also found that Gu's actions reflected a "psychological impairment", which he did not specify.

The court also said Zhang Xiaojun, an aide to the Bo household, was sentenced to nine years in prison for acting as an accomplice to the poisoning of Mr Heywood.

Ambitious politician could face criminal charges

Gu's sentencing could be a prelude to formal punishment of Bo Xilai, an ambitious politician under investigation for alleged violations of party discipline, an accusation that covers corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds.

After the party leadership decides on those allegations, Mr Bo could also face criminal charges related to the murder case.

Mr Bo's hopes for securing a spot in China's next top leadership unravelled after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a US consulate in early February for about 24 hours and exposed the murder allegations.

Britain's embassy in China said in an emailed statement that it welcomed the "fact that the Chinese authorities have investigated the death of Neil Heywood and tried those they identified as responsible".

It added that Britain had "consistently made clear to the Chinese authorities that we wanted to see the trials in this case conform to international human rights standards and for the death penalty not to be applied".

Mr Bo, the son of a revolutionary, ran the southwestern city of Chongqing where Mr Heywood was killed.

He was seen as competing for a place in the Politburo Standing Committee at a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year. Mr Bo was sacked as Chongqing boss in March

Gu was publicly accused of the murder in April, when Mr Bo was suspended from the Politburo, a 25-member elite council that ranks below the Standing Committee. He has yet to be expelled from that council.

Four Chinese policemen have also admitted to charges that they sought to protect Gu from investigation, a development that could also prove dangerous for Mr Bo.

Police sources in Chongqing have said Mr Bo tried to shut down the investigation into his wife after being told she was a suspect.

Mr Bo has not been seen in public since March, when he gave a combative defence of his policies and family at a news conference during China's annual parliament session.