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Chinese official linked to cyanide death of UK businessman is in jail, reports say

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/1/2018 Tom Phillips in Beijing
Neil Heywood was said to have been murdered after threatening to expose corruption. © Reuters Neil Heywood was said to have been murdered after threatening to expose corruption.

The Communist party official who allegedly supplied the cyanide that killed British businessman Neil Heywood and helped unleash an epochal political earthquake in China is serving a 15-year sentence for corruption, a leading magazine has revealed.

According to Caixin, Xia Zeliang, once a mid-ranking official in the south-western city of Chongqing, was tried and convicted on unrelated bribery charges in 2014 although his fate was not made public at the time. Xia, 56, is reportedly being held at a prison in the north-eastern province of Jilin and is due for release in 2027.

Details of Xia’s jailing – for crimes that include taking 25 million yuan (£2.81m) in payoffs – are contained in recently released court documents unearthed by the magazine. More intriguingly, Caixin claimed the documents showed Xia had never been charged for his alleged role in the 2011 killing of 41-year-old Heywood, an internationally notorious crime that exposed the murky and murderous underbelly of contemporary Chinese politics.

Heywood – a Beijing-based associate of one of China’s most powerful political dynasties, the family of party heavyweight Bo Xilai – was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November 2011. The following year, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence for supposedly murdering him after he threatened to expose shady financial dealings. Authorities cremated Heywood’s body without a full autopsy in a bid to cover up the crime.

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Xia, who was close to the Bo family, immediately fell under suspicion. At Gu’s trial Caixin said he had admitted supplying her with the deadly chemical compound after she had asked him for it August 2011. “The cyanide was delivered hidden inside two red candles,” the magazine reported.

Caixin said it was unclear whether Xia had known of Gu’s plan to poison Heywood.

More than six years after Heywood’s murder, the scandal continues to shape politics in the world’s second largest economy. The disgrace of Bo Xilai and his family helped current leader Xi Jinping rid himself of one of his most formidable political rivals, just as he was preparing to take power in November 2012.

Since then Xi has purged a string of powerful political foes, establishing himself as China’s most dominant ruler since its revolutionary founder, Mao Zedong. China’s state media now hails Xi as the country’s “unrivalled helmsman”.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueying

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