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Intrigue grows in Chinese 'murder mystery'

By Steven Jiang, CNN
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UK government calls on Chinese authorities to reopen case of Briton Neil Heywood
  • Businessman Heywood was found dead in a Chinese hotel room last November
  • "Excessive alcohol" blamed for death. Body was cremated with no autopsy
  • Heywood was a friend of high profile politician Bo Xilai, who was sacked two weeks ago

Chongqing, China (CNN) -- In this sprawling Chinese metropolis of some 30 million residents, new details have emerged in the story linking a disgraced former Communist Party chief with a dead British businessman.

Until two weeks ago, Bo Xilai was the charismatic -- albeit controversial -- leader of Chongqing, known for his fight against organized crime and his devotion to Maoist ideology.

His sudden sacking from his powerful post has lifted the name Neil Heywood from the shadows to be a key link in a story of intrigue and betrayal that goes all the way to China's normally secretive top leadership.

Heywood was found dead last November in a hotel room here in southwestern China. Officials quickly ruled "excessive consumption of alcohol" as the cause of death, media reports say, and his body was cremated without an autopsy.

Now, the British government is calling on the Chinese authorities to reopen the Heywood case because of reported suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

Amid this deepening mystery, Bo's record in Chongqing faces increasing scrutiny as once-silenced critics start to tell their stories.

Dead UK businessman and the 'princeling'
Infighting in Chinese Communist Party
Reaction mixed to Bo Xilai's ouster

At the height of Bo's signature anti-crime campaign in 2009, Beijing-based lawyer Li Zhuang defended an alleged gang member and discovered police torture during interrogation.

"For eight days and eight nights, my client was repeatedly hung from the ceiling," Li recalled in an interview with CNN.

"He eventually soiled himself. His interrogators ordered him to remove the feces on the floor with his bare hands and use his shorts to wipe it clean. Then they hung him up naked."

Trying to expose the interrogators' crimes, Li said he was detained, tortured and promptly sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for fabricating evidence and inciting witnesses.

"Their barbaric kind of law enforcement or, rather, their trampling of the law was against everything a modern civilization stands for," he said.

In just ten months, Chongqing police arrested almost 5,000 people and executed more than a dozen as part of Bo's so-called "smashing the black" campaign.

But it was the city's former top policeman Wang Lijun -- once Bo's right-hand man -- who brought down his old boss.

In early February Wang spectacularly sought refuge for a whole day inside a U.S. consulate in a nearby city. He wanted political asylum, apparently fearing for his life and allegedly holding incriminating information against Bo.

This is where Heywood re-enters the picture. Media reports and online posts claim Wang clashed with Bo after suggesting the British man had been poisoned amid a business dispute with Bo's wife.

After walking out of the U.S. consulate, Wang was taken away by state security agents from Beijing and has not been seen or heard from since. The U.S. government says Wang left the consulate voluntarily. Similarly, Bo has disappeared from the public eye since the announcement of his sacking.

CNN has spoken to a Bo family friend who said they are ignoring all the chatter and believe the truth will eventually prevail. This friend asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The Chinese government and Heywood's family have also declined to comment.

In Chongqing's small expatriate community, however, people are asking about Heywood, eager to relay information and provide leads.

"I read he died of alcohol overdose but he never drank," a businesswoman said, sipping wine at a networking event thrown by the British Chamber of Commerce. "He knew Bo Xilai's wife well -- and was taking care of their son when the boy was studying in England."

When pushed for specifics, no one seems to have met Heywood personally. The 41-year-old British businessman at the center of an international political storm had few local connections.

Heywood had lived in China for more than a decade and was married to a Chinese woman. Among his employers was Hakluyt and Company, a consulting firm founded by former officers of the British spy agency MI6.

British consulate officials in Chongqing admitted to CNN they know little about Heywood -- "he wasn't really part of the British community here" -- and even less about the firm Hakluyt. They also denied reports that Wang had requested asylum at their consulate first before going to the Americans.

Heywood's close relationship with the Bo family, though, had been documented by local and overseas media. In a 2009 interview with a Beijing newspaper, he praised the "extraordinary talent" of Bo's younger son, describing in intimate details how the teenager quickly excelled academically and socially at a prestigious British boarding school.

Bo is a Chinese "princeling," the son of a Maoist-era revolutionary hero. He rose through the political ranks and was considered a top contender for a spot in the Politburo Standing Committee -- a nine-member group that effectively rules the country -- with the Communist Party readying for its once-in-a-decade power transition later this year.

The once enviable personal ties between Bo and Heywood have now turned to a thorny diplomatic issue between two nations.

Reporters are descending on Chongqing to investigate the case amid the biggest political turmoil in Beijing the public has seen in decades.

"There's a guy from our consulate who knows all about the Heywood case," offered a British patron at a popular local Irish pub. "He's here tonight."

But he is definitely not talking.

For now, what really happened to Neil Heywood in that hotel room -- as well as what's going to happen to Bo -- remains shrouded in the city's spring mist.

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