BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese widow of a British businessman thought to have been murdered in a case that has rocked China's political establishment has been gagged by local police, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Neil Heywood, 41, was found dead in his hotel room in China's southwestern city of Chongqing last November. The family initially did not suspect foul play. But in a stunning twist, state media announced that Gu Kailai, wife of Chongqing's disgraced Communist Party boss Bo Xilai, and a household assistant were "highly suspected" of killing Heywood and have been detained.
Heywood's widow, Wang Lulu who lives with her two children in a gated community of expensive villas on the outskirts of Beijing, has not commented publicly about the case. State media cited a dispute over unspecified "economic interests" between Gu and Heywood.
"Police officers questioned her recently and warned her not to speak to foreign media," the source with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
He declined to speculate why police gagged her. Chinese authorities customarily warn families of jailed dissidents and crime suspects not to talk to the media.
Asked what Lulu's views were after the revelation implicating Gu in the scandal, another source close to the family said: "It's still difficult to believe. It was absolutely not necessary. The two families were very close. She (Gu) was the godmother of (Heywood's) children."
Heywood's 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son attend an international school in Beijing.
The scandal is potentially the most divisive the Party has faced since Zhao Ziyang was sacked as Party chief in 1989 for opposing the brutal army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.Before his fall, Bo, 62 was widely seen as a contender for a post in China's top leadership committee, which will be decided later this year.
He was suspended this week from the Party Politburo and Central Committee and is being questioned by anti-graft investigators. His wife Gu, who turns 52 this year, has yet to be indicted. They have disappeared from public view. Their son, Bo Guagua, is studying at Harvard University.
The scandal came to light after Bo's estranged vice-mayor, Wang Lijun, sought asylum at the U.S. Consulate in nearby Chengdu in February, after confronting Bo with his suspicions about Heywood's death.
China's propaganda machine has gone full blast to discredit the charismatic and contentious Bo, who until his ouster had been eyeing a seat in the Party's nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, China's pinnacle of power.
State media have urged the Party's 80 million members, civil servants, the 2.3-million People's Liberation Army and public to fall in line and not to question the findings of the case, apparently to avoid a split in their ranks.
Bo's sympathizers were convinced he was the victim of a power struggle. Before his downfall, Bo told reporters during the annual full session of parliament in March that unspecified people were "pouring filth" on him and his family.In March, Heywood's bereaved relatives in Beijing and London, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in separate interviews they did not suspect foul play at the time and denied media speculation that Heywood was cremated against their wishes.
Chongqing police had initially attributed death to cardiac arrest due to over-consumption of alcohol, but the British Embassy in Beijing asked China to reopen investigations into the case.
Heywood's family said then he was not a heavy drinker, but a chain smoker and that his father, Peter, also died of a heart attack after drinks over dinner at his London home in 2004 at age 63.
The British Embassy had requested a meeting with the widow on Thursday. Embassy spokespeople had no immediate comment.
The Times of London reported on Thursday that Heywood feared for his safety and sought to secure a British passport for his wife barely a year before his death.The Foreign Office and UK Border Agency, which handles passports, both declined to comment.
But a close friend of Heywood dismissed the report, saying Lulu, originally from the northeastern city of Dalian, did not want a British passport because it would be inconvenient for her to live in China.
"Neil knew a lot of influential people back home. Getting his wife a passport would have been very easy, but she didn't want one because it would complicate entry and exit," the friend said, asking not to be identified.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)