A Chinese rights activist from the southern province of Guangdong has died in a police-run detention center, in what his family says are suspicious circumstances.
Zhang Liumao was reported dead by authorities in the Guangzhou No. 3 Detention Center in the early hours of Wednesday morning, but his family has been prevented from viewing his body, they told RFA.
Zhang had been charged with "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a public order charge often used to target critics of the government.
But detention center staff gave no explanation to his family regarding the circumstances of his death, his sister Zhang Weichu told RFA.
"The police were unwilling to give us any information about the circumstances, or about how or where he died," Zhang Weichu said. "All they said was that he is dead."
"They told us to go there and go through the paperwork and discuss it with them."
She said Zhang Liumao's body is still at the crematorium, and the family has refused to give permission for his cremation until they have more information.
Link to writings
According to Zhang Weichu, Zhang Liumao was detained in a sudden police raid on his home on Aug. 15, but his case hadn't yet proceeded as far as a trial.
She said his detention was likely linked to an unofficial literary magazine that had been circulating in Guangzhou.
An employee who answered the phone at the detention center on Wednesday declined to comment on the case.
"It's not convenient for me to answer you, because there should be a unified message on this," the employee said.
Fellow rights activist Qu Bo said the charges were inappropriate for someone who had simply been expressing an opinion.
"The law is vague on the matter of whether just speaking can constitute 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,' and as such I think that this favors the abuse of power," Qu said.
'Opposing the Party'
Meanwhile, Zhang Liumao's elder sister, Zhang Wuzhou, said she plans to demand an explanation from the detention center.
"All we have had have been fragments of information from the police department when we went there," she said. "They told us he had been 'opposing the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party'."
"I just can't get my head around how my brother died, and also, exactly what his crime was."
"It's not very realistic to say that he was opposing the Communist Party, because we are just regular people," she said.
She added: "I feel so sad, anxious and confused, and sorry for my brother, because he lost his job and had no way to live, and therefore couldn't easily start a family, and now this terrible thing has happened."
Family, friends turned away
Freedom of speech activist Wu Bin, who accompanied Zhang Wuzhou to the detention center, said they had been refused entry.
"There were nine of us, including lawyers and concerned friends, and we had all signed in ... when they wouldn't let us in, only the relatives," Wu said.
"[The family] asked for his personal belongings back, and they were told it was against the rules, and that they would be held in storage," he said.
Wu said that he and Zhang Wuzhou had visited the detention center a few weeks earlier and had also been refused permission to see Zhang Liumao.
"The police officer swore to us that there was no beating or mistreatment of prisoners in that detention center, that all was well inside," Wu said.
"And now we have this happening," he said.
Zhang's death comes ahead of an appraisal by the United Nations Committee against Torture of China’s implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, scheduled for Nov. 17-18.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied requests from activists seeking detailed information on state agents who have been prosecuted for crimes related to torture, the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network reported this month.
Instead, Chinese activists have faced reprisals in the form of police harassment and detention for applying to obtain such data via China’s Open Government Information (OGI) system, according to CHRD, which compiles and translates reports from rights groups inside China.
Earlier this month, New York-based Human Rights Watch hit out at the Chinese authorities for showing "cruel disregard" for the health of prisoners of conscience, citing the deaths in custody of rights activist Cao Shunli and popular Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.