Friends of Neil Heywood, the British businessperson whose death in China triggered a political firestorm, have questioned Chinese prosecutors’ account of how and why he was killed – especially the claim that he threatened the safety of the son of ousted Communist Party official Bo Xilai.
The friends also disputed key parts of the chronology that observers say was presented by prosecutors during last week’s trial of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and a family aide for the murder of Heywood in the southwestern city of Chongqing in November.
Gu’s trial was the Chinese leadership’s first public attempt to establish an official narrative for what happened to Heywood – a key step in its efforts to conclude the party’s worst political crisis in more than three decades, experts and diplomats say.
But experts and diplomats say that inconsistencies, ambiguities and omissions in the official account now threaten to undermine the credibility of that process even before the party has announced how it plans to handle Bo, the former Chongqing party chief.
Gu and the family aide didn’t contest the charges at last week’s trial and the court is due to announce its verdict and sentence at a later date, according to accounts of the proceedings by observers, the court itself and the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Heywood’s family has declined to comment either in person or through a lawyer who represented it at the trial.
Friends of Heywood, however, questioned prosecutors’ claim that he had threatened the safety of Bo Guagua, the son of Gu and the elder Bo, and at one point confined him at home in Britain after they became embroiled in a business dispute.
“I find the idea of Neil threatening the safety of Bo Guagua to be extraordinary,” one close friend of Heywood told The Wall Street Journal.
“He was a good and loyal friend to Guagua over the years, and was a mentor to him while he was studying in Britain. Whatever difference on business matters there might have been, he remained throughout as a kind uncle figure.”
Bo Guagua, who friends say is in the US after graduating from Harvard University in May, has declined to comment on the trial and repeatedly refrained from answering questions about his links to Heywood.
The British government, which sent two diplomats to observe the trial, has also declined to comment on the trial so far on the grounds that the verdict has yet to be announced.
But analysts say the questions surrounding the official account presented in court are expected to make it harder for the British government to formulate its public response. Foreign Secretary William Hague in April called for a thorough investigation free from political interference.
Observers at the trial said prosecutors claimed in court that Heywood had demanded GBP 13 million (about $20 million) from the Bo family as compensation for promised returns on a failed property deal in Chongqing.
One friend of Heywood said that he did appear to have had some kind of business dispute with the Bo family, and felt that he was owed money by them, but had never given specific details of the disagreement.
According to the observers, the prosecutors said that Heywood had repeatedly threatened Bo Guagua and on one occasion confined him to his home in Britain – although they didn’t specify exactly where.
The prosecutors said that when Bo Guagua telephoned his mother to tell her he had been “kidnapped,” she became severely distressed and decided to kill Heywood, according to the observers.
Another of Heywood’s friends described his alleged actions as “totally out of character,” adding that the Briton “wasn’t a physically threatening man.”
“I can’t imagine him holding anyone against their will,” that friend said. “Neil said Guagua was the only one [of the Bo family] he still spoke to – but not in the blackmail sense. My impression was Guagua was the one he remained fondest of.”
Gu suggested that the incident had occurred shortly before Heywood’s death, telling the court, according to Xinhua: “During those days last November, I suffered a mental breakdown after learning that my son was in jeopardy.”
But Heywood’s friends disputed the timing of the alleged incident, since Heywood was in China in early November and Bo Guagua left Britain in 2010 to do a postgraduate degree at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of government.
The friends also said it was highly unlikely that Heywood would have explicitly threatened Bo Guagua, then traveled to Chongqing to meet his mother and have too much to drink during the meeting with her. Prosecutors said that Gu killed Heywood by pouring poison into his mouth after he became drunk and vomited. The friends have said he was normally only a light drinker.
Some observers present at the trial also questioned whether an email presented in court, allegedly from Heywood, had explicitly threatened to “destroy” Bo Guagua if he did not pay the GBP 13 million, as some media accounts of the trial have suggested.
Those observers said they thought that the alleged email, which they said was read out in Chinese in court but not shown to them, said that “it would be damaging” to Bo Guagua, or that he would be “ruined,” if he didn’t pay the money, the latter interpretation with less overtones of a threat to Bo’s physical safety. The difference appeared to be related to the interpretation of the Chinese word used.
The precise wording of the alleged email, as well as other details of the proceedings, are hard to pin down because none of the observers in court were allowed to record the proceedings or to take any notes.
There is further confusion over when Gu and Heywood first met: Xinhua said 2005, while an unofficial account of the trial circulating online, most details of which were confirmed by the observers who were present in the courtroom, said the year was 2003.
Several of Heywood’s friends said both dates were inaccurate and that Heywood got to know the Bo family in the mid-1990swhile living in the northeastern city of Dalian, where Bo was mayor at the time. They also said he helped make arrangements for Bo Guagua’s education in Britain when he moved there around 2000.