Calls For New Probe as Rights Activists Remember 'Hero' Democracy Activist

Rights activists say they don't believe that veteran labor activist Li Wangyang committed suicide in police custody five years ago.

Hunan activist Li Wangyang (L), whose death in 2012 was declared a suicide by Chinese police, in file photo.

Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hunan on Tuesday placed family members and rights activists under surveillance amid calls for an investigation into the "suicide" death of veteran labor activist Li Wangyang five years ago.

Li's sister Li Wangling and her husband Zhao Baozhu were under close surveillance on Tuesday, the anniversary of the activist's death under police custody in a Hunan hospital.

Meanwhile, the cell phones of Zhu Chengzhi, Zhou Zhirong and Ouyang Jinghua --  activists who have previously spoken out over his death -- were unreachable on Tuesday.

Police have meanwhile placed under house arrest dozens of activists and supporters who had planned to make offerings at Li's cemetery, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for the Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said in a statement.

Li Wangling and Zhao Baozhu were taken under state security police escort to visit Li's remains at the Dashanling Cemetery in Hunan's Shaoshan city, it said.

A Hunan-based democracy activist who declined to be named told RFA that all of Li's supporters are currently under close surveillance.

"There is no way we can go and pay our respects to Li Wangyang, because we are being too closely monitored," the activist said. "There are many activities that we can't participate in."

Hanging doubted by many

He said many of the social media chat groups used by his associates have now been shuttered by Chinese internet censors.

"All of the WeChat groups used by dissidents like us have been shut down," he said, adding: "I never believed it when they said he had killed himself; he was such a strong-minded kind of person."

"I cried a lot when I heard it; I really grieved for him."

A Chinese police investigation into Li's death upheld an earlier verdict of suicide, in spite of widespread public doubts over the claim that the severely disabled 62-year-old hanged himself.

When relatives arrived at the scene of Li Wangyang's death, his body was hanging by the neck from the ceiling near his hospital bed, but was removed by police soon afterwards.

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.

Police took away Li’s body after his death was discovered and kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.

Shanghai-based activist Wang Jianhua said he is currently under house arrest at his home.

"I had a lot of questions in my mind after Li Wangyang's 'suicide,'" he said. "One was that his feet were touching the floor and his hands were pushing against the window frame, so how could he have hanged himself?"

"I call shenanigans, and one day, the truth will come out, sure as water runs out of a rock ... because this was murder."

'Iron hero'

In Hong Kong, a small group of protesters marched to Beijing's Central Liaison Office in the city, standing for a few moments in silence with a mourning portrait of the veteran activists on a placard.

"Re-open the investigation into Li Wangyang's suicide!" the protesters shouted.

Albert Ho, who heads the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, called on younger activists in Hong Kong to learn from Li.

"Look at Li Wangyang, who went through so many difficulties and setbacks in his life, and was under huge pressure and suffered horribly, and yet was never discouraged, not even a little bit," Ho told the rally.

"He will be remembered for his noble character, determination and strong convictions," he said. "He would always say that he was no hero; just an ordinary person, which is actually the best thing you can be."

A Hong Kong resident surnamed Ng said he was an "iron hero" for the democratic movement, however. "Anyone who fights for freedom, democracy and equality should commemorate him," Ng 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 1989 student movement 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 Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lam Kwok-lap for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.