Bo Xilai

Briton's death still cloaked in mystery

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am


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The death of businessman Neil Heywood - an event key to the downfall of princeling-politician Bo Xilai - remains shrouded in mystery five months after the 41-year-old Briton was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room.

Although the British government finally broke its silence this week with a lengthy statement on Heywood's November death, key questions remain unanswered. Those include why it took the London so long to weigh in and whether Heywood, who occasionally worked for a secretive business intelligence firm with links to MI6, ever really worked for Britain's overseas spy agency.

Neither question was fully addressed on Tuesday by British Foreign Secretary William Hague's statement, which gave the first detailed, chronological account of the British government's response to a death that Beijing says may have involved Bo's wife, Gu Kailai .

Speculation about Heywood's work has been rife because little is known, with British media quoting people who knew him as saying he had intentionally kept a 'mysterious' profile in China.

Despite a denial by the British foreign office, rumours abound linking the death of Heywood in Chongqing to MI6 with many saying that British intelligence circles routinely use expatriate businesspeople abroad to collect information.

Although much remains unknown about Heywood's links to British intelligence, Dr Kerry Brown, a senior fellow with London-based Chatham House, said it would have been understandable if he had tried to give that impression because 'sometimes people trade off this'.

The fact that Heywood once worked for London-based Hakluyt, a secretive strategic-intelligence firm set up and staffed by former MI6 officers, has fuelled speculation that he was a spy for the intelligence agency.

Analysts say it is reasonable for overseas firms gathering commercial intelligence on the mainland and the investigators they employ to stay low key to avoid unwanted attention.

Chongqing police originally concluded that Heywood died of excessive alcohol consumption. But that finding was challenged by his friends, who have variously depicted Heywood as a social drinker or even a non-drinker, and asked the British government to investigate his death.

The British media has repeatedly noted how even Heywood's family and relatives dismissed speculation the businessman was murdered until Beijing early last week expelled Bo from its top ranks and announced that the former party boss' wife was now 'strongly suspected' of involvement in Heywood's murder.

Heywood's mother was said to be 'horrified and shocked' to learn her son was murdered.

The Wall Street Journal said London decided not to pursue the case because of concerns that it would be 'problematic' to ask China to reopen the case.

Hague said he was not personally notified of the suspicions until February 7, a day after former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, Bo's former top aide, sought asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu while carrying classified documents that included revelations about Bo, and his wife's involvement in Heywood's murder.

British diplomats then repeatedly raised demands for a formal investigation into the murder case.

'I am sure [our embassies and consulates] are as stunned as any that Heywood's death has now become linked to Bo,' said Brown, a former diplomat. 'I think this has been shown in their response all along - constantly being slightly surprised by what is happening.

'Now it has been all so public, the British government has no choice but to ask for an inquiry.'