Family members of Li Wangyang, the veteran labor activist from the central province of Hunan who died under suspicious circumstances in June, have denied the official account by the ruling Chinese Communist Party of his death and its immediate aftermath, their lawyer said Wednesday.
The activist's sister, Li Wangling, and her husband Zhao Baozhu, are currently living under tight police surveillance at their home in Hunan's Shaoyang city, and recently denied that they were present during the autopsy, or that they ever signed documents consenting to his cremation, according to Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling.
Tang said he managed to have a brief exchange with Li as the couple worked on a construction site in the city during a trip together with two journalists from Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper.
"I was driving around with the reporters near their home and we had just gone past it when we found them on a construction site digging sand," Tang said on Wednesday following the trip, during which he was himself detained for six days.
"I ran over there to make sure it was them and we hurriedly took some pictures and exchanged a few words," he said.
Tang said the couple had told him directly that they had never expressed the desire to avoid contact with the media in the wake of Li Wangyang's funeral.
"I asked them if the government had let them see a copy of the autopsy report and they said they had never seen any such report," he said.
However, Li Wangling said the authorities had forced her to sign a complicated medical document, he said, which was full of terminology she couldn't understand.
Shortly after this exchange, Tang and the two Ming Pao journalists were detained, Tang said, adding that he had been unable to contact the couple since his release.
Li Wangyang died at a hospital in Shaoyang city in the custody of local police on June 6. When relatives arrived at the scene, his body was hanging by the neck from the ceiling near his hospital bed, but was removed by police soon afterwards.
Relatives, friends, and rights groups have all called into question several details of both circumstance and timing which they say point to the possibility of foul play, including photographs distributed on the Chinese microblog service Sina Weibo, which showed Li’s feet touching the floor.
Police took away Li’s body after his death was discovered and kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.
A Chinese police investigation into Li's death upheld an earlier verdict of suicide, in spite of widespread public doubts over the claim that the severely disabled 62-year-old hanged himself.
In an investigation lasting from June 19 to July 9, the Hunan provincial police department looked into the cause of Li's death, a police spokesman said in a statement.
"The investigation determined that Li Wangyang committed suicide," the spokesman told reporters.
The provincial-level report also said that Li Wangling and her husband Zhao Baozhu "no longer wished to have contact with the media following Li's cremation."
One of the journalists detained in Shaoyang, who declined to be identified, said his hair was pulled and he was roughly treated during the detention by a "large number" of police officers.
"We were held in a hotel room under the guard of six plainclothes police officers," the reporter said. "There were three of them watching us even while we slept."
"The entire experience was very mentally oppressive ... we weren't allowed to call our families or colleagues to tell them that we were okay," he said. "They told us that if we were cooperative, we would be released sooner, but that if we didn't cooperate, they would take us through a judicial process."
"They said ... that we had broken the rules of reporting [in China] by not getting in touch with the liaison office first," the reporter said. "They wouldn't let us go until we had signed a few documents."
'Forced to act'
Veteran blogger and online journalist Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname "Beifeng," said Li Wangling's comments had confirmed for him what he had suspected all along.
"[Li Wangyang's] friends and relatives have all been forced to act a certain way in front of the media," Wen said. "Hong Kong reporters suspected all along that the so-called signing of the autopsy report was faked."
"This [meeting] seems to have confirmed what everyone else has suspected all along, that there is no documentary evidence backing up the claim that Li Wangyang's death was a suicide."
According to social media activist Wu Gan, known online by his nickname "The Butcher," the recent crackdown on friends and supporters of Li Wangyang suggested the authorities were keen to avoid further speculation around the cause of his death.
"[Activist] Xiao Yong has been sent to labor camp, while Zhu Chengzhi is still in the detention center," Wu said.
Zhu Chengzhi was among several activists seized on June 9 after Li's death and photographs of him hanging by the neck from a window frame sparked a public outcry at the official verdict of "suicide."
He was subsequently detained incommunicado, before being arrested on a charge of “inciting subversion of state power,” according to an official police notice dated July 25 and seen by the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group.
He remains in custody at the Shaoyang City Detention Center, while Xiao was handed a two-year administrative sentence of "re-education through labor" after being detained at a rally for political reforms in Guangzhou, CHRD said last month.
"Xiao was in police custody for a month before being released on bail and sent back to Shaoyang city, and at one point was not allowed to sleep during five straight days of interrogation as his overall health declined," the group said in an emailed statement in July.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.