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Former UN diplomat Ashe dies while facing US charges

Former UN diplomat John Ashe has died. The onetime ambassador to the United Nations from Antigua and Barbuda and former General Assembly president stood accused by US prosecutors of taking more than $1 million in bribes.

Contrary to earlier reports stating that he died of a heart attack, it now appears that he suffocated.

An official with the county's Medical Examiner office said Ashe died Wednesday afternoon of "traumatic asphyxia." He was apparently doing bench presses when he was unable to get the barbell off of his neck.

Mogens Lykketoft, president of

the UN General Assembly,

said earlier in the day that

Ashe,

who served in the largely ceremonial post from September 2013 to September 2014, died of a heart attack.

"Despite the many as yet unproven accusations made against him, Mr. Ashe was for many years a hard-working and popular member of the diplomatic corps in New York and at the United Nations," Lykketoft said.

Ashe, who died aged 61 at home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, had joined Antigua's foreign service in 1989. As a diplomat, Ashe advocated sustainable development, taking leadership roles in some of the major UN environmental agreements.

'Platform for profit'

Last year,

US authorities accused Ashe

of using his UN position as a "platform for profit" to the tune of more than $1 million (870,000 million euros) in bribes. Officials say Ashe used the bribes to cover a New Orleans vacation and the construction of a $30,000 basketball court at his house, make lease installments on his BMW and

buy Rolex watches.

Ashe pleaded not guilty.

"It's a tragic loss for his family and the community," Jeremy Schneider, Ashe's attorney, said late Wednesday. "He was preparing to fight his case at trial."

US prosecutors say Ashe took bribes from developer Ng Lap Seng and "various Chinese businessmen" to boost a UN-sponsored conference center in Macau that Ng's company would build, as well as other projects related to the UN and Antigua.

Prosecutors have charged seven people,

including Ashe, the billionaire Chinese real estate mogul, two diplomats and officers for a humanitarian organization.

Authorities say the billionaire filtered bribes through intermediaries such as his assistant Jeff Yin, who - like his boss - pleaded not guilty, and Dominican UN ambassador Francis Lorenzo, who has pleaded guilty and been suspended. Prosecutors say Global Sustainability Foundation chief Sheri Yan and finance director Heidi Hong Piao also facilitated the bribes. Both women pleaded guilty in January.

As questions arose about whether diplomatic immunity might spare Ashe the consequences of the harshest allegations, prosecutors charged him with tax fraud in connection with the funds. However, at a May 9 hearing, Assistant US Attorney Daniel Richenthal said prosecutors planned to seek a new indictment in the case against Ashe.

Ashe engaged in plea talks as recently as last month. The status of those negotiations remains unclear. A spokesman for Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara had no immediate comment following Ashe's death.

mkg/kms (Reuters, dpa, AP)

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