The Washington Post

Britain urges China to probe businessman’s death without ‘political interference’

Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief, left, speaks to Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday. Britain’s senior politicians urged China to ensure that an investigation into the suspicious murder of a British businessman is free from political meddling and quickly uncovers the facts. (Leon Neal/Reuters)

The British government urged China on Tuesday to carry out a full investigation into the death of a British businessman and to ensure that it is free of political interference.

The mysterious death of Neil Heywood, a Briton who had lived in China for 10 years, has been linked to the downfall of the prominent party chieftain Bo Xilai, amid one of the biggest political scandals in China in a generation.

In Britain, the Foreign Office has come under criticism for alleged delays in intervening in the case for fear of damaging trade ties. Heywood was found dead Nov. 15 in a hotel room on the outskirts of Chongqing, the southwestern megacity where Bo was party leader before his ouster March 15.

Last week, Bo was stripped of all of his remaining party posts, and his wife, Gu Kailai, was named, along with a household aide, as a suspect in Heywood’s murder. The Reuters news service has reported that Heywood was poisoned after he threatened to expose a plan by Gu to transfer money overseas.

In a written statement to Parliament on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary William Hague defended Britain’s handling of the case, saying officials had voiced concerns about Heywood’s death to Chinese officials on four occasions, the first time on Feb. 15. On April 10, China announced that a new inquiry had begun.

“We now wish to see the conclusion of a full investigation that observes due process, is free from political interference, exposes the truth behind this tragic case and ensures that justice is done,” Hague said.

Shortly after Hague’s statement, Prime Minister David Cameron raised the matter with Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief, who was in London to discuss strengthening bilateral trade and cultural ties.

Cameron said that he “welcomed the ongoing investigation and that the UK stood ready to offer any necessary assistance,” his office said in a statement.

The statement said Li assured Cameron that the investigation was being conducted “in full accordance with the rule of law” and thanked him for the offer of help. It also said that both governments agreed to stay in close touch on the case.

When Heywood, a 41-year-old businessman with close ties to Bo’s family, was found dead in November, Chinese authorities said he had died of an alcohol overdose. British officials accepted that explanation, although Hague conceded in his statement that the Foreign Office had become aware in January of rumors in the British expatriate community that Heywood’s death was suspicious.

Hague said he was personally made aware of the case on Feb. 7, the day after Bo’s former ally, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in the city of Chengdu, allegedly with evidence that Heywood had been murdered.

The scandal has already proved embarrassing for Jeremy Browne, a Foreign Office junior minister who met with Bo in Chongqing on Nov. 16, days before Heywood’s body was cremated. An autopsy was not performed.

Browne was unaware of Heywood’s case at the time, Hague said.

“Ministers are not routinely told about the death of British nationals or other consular cases as they are so numerous,” Hague said, adding, “We need to make sure that they are told in relevant cases and we will review our procedures.”

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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