Hague defends diplomats' handling of death in China

Wed, Apr 18, 2012, 01:00

BRITISH FOREIGN secretary William Hague has insisted that British diplomats were kept in the dark about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a British businessman in China last year.

The declaration came as British prime minister David Cameron met Chinese politburo member Li Changchun and offered China “any necessary assistance” to help in the investigation into the suspected murder of Neil Heywood. The case has led to the fall of a leading Chinese politician and his wife.

Defending British diplomats against charges that they had been afraid to rile the Chinese authorities, Mr Hague said a foreign office minister, Jeremy Browne, had not known of Mr Heywood’s death when he visited Chongqing last November.

In a written statement to MPs, Mr Hague said Mr Heywood had died on November 14th. His body was found a day later in his hotel room. The local British consulate was notified by fax on November 16th by Chinese officials that the man had died from an “over-consumption of alcohol”.

Mr Browne was in China during those days but despite Mr Heywood’s reputation and his unusual death, he was not informed, Mr Hague added.

Mr Browne has been criticised for appearing in a photograph with local political leader Bo Xilai alongside a panda.

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

Members of the Heywood family informed consular staff on November 18th “of their decision to have [his] body cremated and confirmed this to us both in China and from the UK.

“An FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] official duly attended the cremation ceremony,” Mr Hague added.

Diplomats learned only on January 18th of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, he said, and listed the numerous occasions since then when the British had urged the Chinese to take action.

Mr Bo’s wife Gu Kailai has since been named as a suspect in the death of Mr Heywood. Last month her husband was removed as Chongqing’s party secretary and suspended as a member of the politburo amid allegations that he tried to stop an investigation into her actions.

Last night Downing Street said Mr Li, a senior member of the politburo, had given an assurance that the case was being dealt with by the judiciary and agreed to stay in close touch on the issue.