Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have released from house arrest around 20 supporters of a labor activist after they disputed suicide as the official verdict of his death.
Li Wangyang had died under suspicious circumstances in June.
Family members and Li’s fellow activists had become the target of a government crackdown in recent months after they challenged the official account of his death and its immediate aftermath by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"It has been the same for all of us," said Li Jianjun, rights activist and resident of Hunan's Shaoyang city. "We have all been released [from house arrest] in the past few days, probably about 20 people in all."
"There were around 20 in Shaoyang ... but I don't know about the ones who live elsewhere," Li said.
Authorities across China began to release rights activists held in detention centers and hotels or under house arrest following the smooth transition of power to the next generation of ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders on Nov. 14, though a number remain unaccounted for.
Across the country, dissidents, Christian believers, academics and lawyers, among others, have been subjected to enforced disappearance, forced 'holidays,' house arrest, detention, and labor camp sentences, rights groups said.
Li said he and a number of other activists had been held under police guard in their own homes for five months.
"There were other friends of ours who were held in guesthouses, but I was held at home," he said. "A lot of other people were under house arrest too, and they have all been released in the past few days, with the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress," which ended last week after endorsing a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
"I told [the police who guarded us] that it was illegal to limit our personal freedom like this."
Li said fellow activists Yi Zheng'an, Liu Shaohua, Yang Sheng, Hu Jianzhong, Shang Zhixue, Li Shuilin had been released from house arrest around the same time as him, with many others in a similar situation.
Li said Zhu Chengzhi, Li Wangyang's most vocal supporter, remained in detention. "There has been no news of him," he said.
Guangzhou-based lawyer Tang Jingling, who represents Li Wangyang's sister Li Wangling, said he had still been unable to get in touch with the family, although he had heard about the releases.
"They told me that Li Jianjun and Zhang Shanguang had been released, but their cell phones have probably been blocked," Tang said. "I heard the news via friends."
"A lot of people's cell phone numbers have been blocked, so a lot of people have changed their numbers."
Li Wangling and her husband Zhao Baozhu are currently living under tight police surveillance at their home in Shaoyang, and have denied that they were present during the autopsy as claimed by police, or that they ever signed documents consenting to Li Wangyang's cremation.
Meanwhile, Li Jianjun said he had been held in a detention center for 10 days, and then transferred to different hotels and guesthouses in Hunan's Huaihua city.
"There were always at least six or seven people guarding me at all times, sometimes eight or nine," he said. "They worked in shifts."
He said he had been warned by state security police to pay no more attention to the controversy surrounding Li Wangyang's death.
"They told me not to send articles overseas," Li Jianjun said. "I think it states clearly in China's constitution that citizens enjoy certain freedoms, and they had no reason to detain me."
"It was definitely against the law."
Ruled a 'suicide'
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.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.