The death in police custody earlier this week of a veteran 1989 pro-democracy activist from the central Chinese province of Hunan has relatives, fellow activists, and rights groups questioning the official version of events.
Li Wangyang, 62, died at a hospital in Shaoyang city in the custody of local police. When relatives arrived at the scene, his body was hanging by the neck from the ceiling by his hospital bed, but was removed by police soon afterwards.
"Several details—of both circumstance and timing—point to the possibility of foul play in Li’s death," the overseas-based group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in an e-mailed statement on Friday. "Photographs distributed on the Chinese microblog service [Sina Weibo] showed Li’s feet touching the floor."
Police took away Li’s corpse after his death was discovered and have kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.
"We have raised our doubts about the cause of death with the authorities, and the whole family is now waiting for a response," Li's brother-in-law Zhao Baozhu said in an interview on Thursday. "They told us that if we were willing for an autopsy to go ahead, they would agree to that."
But Zhao said Li's friends and a lawyer hired by the family had been prevented from traveling to the family's hometown of Shaoyang city.
"This is very troublesome," he said.
Li's friend and fellow activist Zhu Chengzhi said the police had escorted lawyers who had arrived from out of town to represent the family's interests, including prominent Guangzhou rights lawyer Tang Jingling.
"They've all been taken away," he said, adding that he hadn't detected any signs of despair or suicidal thoughts in Li in the days before his death.
"I totally don't believe the authorities' story of suicide," Zhu said.
A second fellow activist, Yi Zheng'an, said police had raided a local hotel, putting him under detention and taking away six or seven activists who had come from out of town to support Li's family.
"They came when we had already gone to sleep and took them away, one by one," he said. "They have told me definitively that I am not allowed out now. As soon as I try to go out, they stop me."
Call for investigation
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-based Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which follows closely the fate of 1989 pro-democracy activists, has called for further investigations into Li's death.
"I think there are many reasons to doubt the story that ... [Li] suddenly committed suicide," said Alliance deputy chairman Richard Choi. "We are suspicious that it the reason for his death has to do with his calls for a reappraisal of June 4 and his interviews with Hong Kong media."
"The Alliance is calling publicly on the Chinese government to begin an investigation and to return Li's body to his family and other independent parties for an autopsy, so there can be some justice fo Li Wangyang and his family," Choi said.
Meanwhile, Alliance founder and democratic lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said he found it hard to believe that Li would suddenly take his own life after enduring so many years of misery in Chinese prisons.
Repeated calls to the Shaoyang municipal police department went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
According to the CHRD statement, Li’s illnesses and disabilities have further contributed to the sense of suspicion around his death, as fellow activists contend that it was physically impossible for him to hang himself.
"Also, Li’s death occurred on June 6, two days after the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, and Li had been subjected to tight police monitoring around the time," the group said.
Li's death came as Chinese authorities moved to crack down on dissidents and rights activists around the country, in a bid to prevent any public memorials on the 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 bloodshed.
Li, a former worker in a glass factory, was jailed for 13 years for "counterrevolution" after he took part in demonstrations inspired by the student-led protests in Beijing, and for a further 10 years for "incitement to overthrow state power" after he called for a reappraisal of the official verdict on the crackdown.
He was blind in both eyes and had lost nearly all his hearing when he was finally released from prison in May 2011, his family said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.