Authorities in the Chinese capital have launched an investigation into the conduct of five police officers amid a public outcry over the death of an environmental activist in police custody earlier this month, officials said on Wednesday.
Lei Yang died soon after being detained on May 7 by police during a raid on a foot massage parlor in Changping county, just north of Beijing, sparking public anger and raising questions about his death
His family questioned police claims that Lei was resisting arrest as a client of the foot-massage parlor, saying he was heading to the airport to meet a friend, while his former classmates at the prestigious Renmin University, where Yang graduated with a master’s degree in environmental science in 2009, launched an online petition calling for a full inquiry into his death.
Now, state prosecutors are preparing to investigate five of the officers involved in Lei's case, the Beijing People's Procuratorate said in a statement on its Sina Weibo social media account.
The announcement follows an application lodged with the procuratorate by Lei's wife.
Lei's death sparked suspicions after the news website Caixin.com cited eyewitnesses as saying that he was seen "screaming for help" as he was pursued in a residential compound by several plainclothes officers.
The Changping police department said Lei had "resisted and attempted to run away" when they tried to arrest him on suspicion of using the services of prostitutes.
Police took coercive measures against him, but then Lei "suddenly felt ill," police said in a statement. He died in a Beijing hospital little more than an hour after his arrest.
Video footage of the arrest was "unavailable," police said, blaming Lei for "knocking over the camera." Police then refused to allow Lei's family and friends to take photos of his body, which family members said showed bruises on his head and arms.
Independent current affairs commentator Chen Jieren said the prosecutors will have their work cut out to conduct a fair investigation.
"It's very sensitive, and no easy matter to supervise the work of the Beijing municipal police department, because it's one of the most powerful police forces in the whole of China," Chen said. "For the procuratorate to even take on this investigation shows that they are at least willing to proceed on the basis of finding out the facts."
But he said there were scant details given in the official announcement, which didn't name any of the five police officers under investigation.
Neither does the probe automatically amount to a criminal prosecution, he said.
"The announcement doesn't specify whether this is a criminal investigation," Chen said. "If it is a criminal investigation, then the rules of the Supreme People's Procuratorate state that the suspects should be named."
"It should also be made clear whether they have been detained," he added. "So I think the prosecutors should make further announcements in more detail."
Anhui-based rights activist Shen Liangqing said it is hard to know exactly what power struggles are taking place behind the scenes, however.
"I don't think it's all about those five low-ranking police officers," Shen said. "The police have very clearly tried to cover up the truth ... including deleting online postings about it."
"So I think there's more at stake here in terms of who's responsible,” he added. “Various officials at every level bear some responsibility."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.