By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The death of John Ashe, a former United Nations General Assembly president accused by U.S. prosecutors of taking bribes, was an accident caused by neck trauma he suffered while lifting a barbell, a medical examiner concluded on Thursday.
Ashe, 61, died on Wednesday afternoon due to "traumatic asphyxia," an official with the Westchester County Office of the Medical Examiner said, contradicting reports that he died of a heart attack. Ashe was on a bench while lifting the barbell.
The medical examiner's conclusion came a day after police responded to a medical emergency call at Ashe's residence in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where he was pronounced dead.
The death of Ashe, a former U.N. ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who served as General Assembly president from 2013 to 2014, marked a surprising turn in the U.S. corruption case.
Ashe was arrested in October and accused of taking $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese businessmen. Seven people have been charged to date, three of whom have pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors said Ashe received more than $500,000 in bribes from billionaire Macau real estate developer Ng Lap Seng to seek U.N. support of a United Nations-sponsored conference center in Macau that Ng's company would develop.
Prosecutors said Ashe also received more than $800,000 from Chinese businessmen to support their interests within the United Nations and Antigua.
At the time of his death, Ashe had only been charged with tax fraud, to which he had pleaded not guilty, amid questions about whether diplomatic immunity might preclude any bribery charges.
But at a May 9 hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richenthal said prosecutors were planning to seek a new indictment in the case against Ashe.
The case remains pending against Ng and his assistant, Jeff Yin, who prosecutors say helped bribe Ashe. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Ashe is survived by his wife, Anilla Cherian, and two children. In a statement provided by Ashe's lawyers on Thursday, his family said, "We will forever miss his gentle nature, calm spirit, and infectious smile."
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)