Several family members and fellow activists linked to 1989 veteran and labor activist Li Wangyang, whose death in police custody sparked public outcry, are being held under close surveillance or house arrest, an overseas rights group said this week, amid reports that authorities are withholding autopsy results.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said some of those with ties to the dissident had refused to sign guarantees not to question the cause of his death, which authorities maintain was a suicide.
Two weeks after Li’s death in a hospital in Hunan province's Shaoyang city on June 6, his sister Li Wangling and her husband, Zhao Baozhu, are still under house arrest, CHRD said.
The group said Huang Lihong, Lei Deming, and Li Zanmin were being similarly treated.
"The whereabouts of several others who have sought clarity on Li’s death—Zhou Zhirong, Zhang Shanguang, and Li Jian’an—are unknown," CHRD said, adding that Yin Zheng'an had also remained out of contact.
"Other friends of Li—including Liu Shuilian, Liu Shaohua, and Ouyang Jinghua—have also been questioned by authorities."
Ouyang Jinghua, a rights activist based in Hunan's Suining county, confirmed the report about himself.
"I am under strict surveillance by my work unit, and I'm not allowed to go anywhere," Ouyang said.
"Yesterday the administrative director and the state security police came to see me, and today the administrative director and the work unit Communist Party secretary came," he said.
"They are keeping a very close eye on me ... so I haven't been able to get any news."
Activist Zhu Chengzhi, who was among several activists detained on June 9, was subsequently given a 10-day detention on a charge of “disrupting social order” after he expressed doubts online about how Li died, CHRD said.
Li Wangyang, 62, died at a hospital in Shaoyang city in the custody of local police, allegedly 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.
Police took away Li’s corpse after his death was discovered and have kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.
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.
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.
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.
Thousands of netizens have signed a petition calling for a probe into the case.
Meanwhile, authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan have refused to make public the results of a recent autopsy on Li's body, according to media reports in Hong Kong.
The Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper quoted a local source as saying that the autopsy had been ready for several days now, although he declined to comment on its contents.
Calls to the cell phones of four of the experts involved in the autopsy resulted in recorded messages saying they were switched off, the paper said.
Liu Mengxiong, a Hong Kong representative to the national-level parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said he had already written to the head of China's Supreme People's Court in Beijing, calling for a centrally directed investigation into the cause of Li Wangyang's death.
Liu said that for the Hunan authorities to carry out the probe was "cronies investigating each other."
Several Li's friends and relatives are still under close surveillance or have gone incommunicado, many for refusing to sign guarantees not to question the cause of Li’s death, which authorities maintain was a suicide, overseas rights campaigners said.
He said the Hunan authorities appeared to be dragging their feet over the report, until the authorities had managed to silence all of Li's relatives, friends, and concerned fellow activists.
Hong Kong paper
Meanwhile, the territory's English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, came under fire from journalists after it cut a lengthy news story on doubts about Li's alleged suicide to a news brief of just 100 words.
"This is a very strange decision," said Hong Kong Journalists' Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting. "Someone dies for his ideals, and he does so shortly after giving an interview to the Hong Kong media."
"This is obviously an important news story, so I don't understand how it could be turned into an item of just 100 words," she said.
"According to my understanding, it was replaced with an item of old news...that had no news value whatsoever."
Under the terms of its handover from British rule, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists fear that media organizations in the territory may nevertheless be highly susceptible to self-censorship, for fear of angering powerful corporations or high-ranking officials in mainland China.
Hong Kong activists have vowed to make Li's death a focus of mass demonstrations planned for Sunday, the 14th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.
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.