Authorities in the Chinese capital have released five police officers who were detained in connection with the death in police custody of environmentalist Lei Yang after the state prosecutor said it wouldn't pursue charges against them.
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, wrote an open letter calling for a full inquiry into his death.
The Fentai District People's Procuratorate said on Friday it wouldn't pursue charges against the officers, saying that their behavior constituted a "dereliction of duty, but that the circumstances were minor," official media reported.
"The prosecutors concluded that Lei had procured sexual services and fiercely resisted law enforcement, later dying due to asphyxia caused by his own vomit," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist party, reported.
However, they also found that Lei's death was related both to police actions and to his resistance, and that police had acted with negligence in not getting him medical treatment soon enough, the paper said.
Call for justice
Former fellow students of Lei's at Beijing's prestigious Renmin University penned an open letter taking issue with the decision and calling for justice for Lei.
The letter, a version of which was also sent to President Xi Jinping, had garnered 1,526 signatures when it was seen by RFA.
Meanwhile, the authorities began to target activists who had spoken out in support of Lei.
Beijing-based rights activist Hou Xin said she was called in for questioning by police on Sunday after she posted a tweet supporting Lei, and was told to sign a guarantee of "good behavior" before being released.
"The police told me not to post anything else related to Lei Yang online. They told me I definitely shouldn't do that, and they took my statement and made me sign it," Hou said.
"They said they'd consult with higher-ups and then decide what to do with me; all I can do now is wait," she said. "I signed the guarantee but I told them I couldn't really make such promises because my civil rights were given to me by the constitution."
Hou said she had posted only to her circle of followers on a chat app, but that her article was later circulated more widely.
"I guess it had a bigger impact than I thought," she said, adding that it had also reappeared on a popular Twitter-like platform. "I have a few thousand friends on WeChat, and I think it ended up all over WeChat and Weibo."
Core interests of police
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the officers were freed because the matter touched too closely on the core interests of the police force.
But he said Lei's alma mater is Renmin University, an institution known unofficially as the "second party school," meaning that they also must have had a fight on their hands.
"The police did this thing, and now it has gotten a lot of attention all across the country ... so I think his classmates can probably bring quite a lot of pressure to bear here," Hu said.
Rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun said he had received a police warning after giving interviews to foreign media on Lei Yang's case.
"I have been told by the justice department that if I carry on doing that, they'll deal with me," Lilang said. "But I think these things need to be said, even if they do punish me."
"I think that their demands [that I keep quiet] are unreasonable."
Beaten to death?
Anhui-based rights activist and former state prosecutor Shen Liangqing said the police should have been prosecuted.
"The suspected crime in the case of Lei Yang is that the police beat him to death," Shen said. "I was involved in a similar case to this back in the 1980s, when I worked at the Anhui People's Procuratorate."
"Five police from Wuhe county's criminal investigation brigade killed someone during the process of trying to force a confession from them, and they were given life imprisonment," Shen said. "But that was back when relations between the general public and the government were far less strained than they are today."
"Nowadays, any citizen who kills an official has to die, but if the police kill a citizen, that's just tough luck," he said.
The Global Times said in a commentary that the prosecutors' decision was clear, and should put "an end" to the matter.
"In China, the authority and reliability of an official report surpasses that of other interpretations," it said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.