Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei on Thursday cremated the body of a dissident who 'died suddenly' in prison last month, in spite of repeated calls for an autopsy from his family.
The U.S.-based family of Peng Ming, who died Nov. 29 at the age of 58 while serving a life sentence for "terrorism" at Hubei's Xianning Prison, demanded an independent autopsy after the authorities said he collapsed and "died suddenly" while watching television.
But they say Peng's heart and brain were later taken from his body without their consent, and that they had been assured that his body wouldn't be cremated until the cause of death was fully investigated.
"They cremated my brother's body without permission this morning at around 7.00 a.m.," Peng's U.S.-based sister Peng Xing told RFA on Thursday, adding that Peng's brother Peng Zhangming was the only relative to attend.
"He was the only person there today; he went alone," she said. "He said the prison staff picked him up and took him to the funeral parlor at around 5.00 a.m. and that more than 20 people went including the head of the district government."
Peng's family announced they would boycott the funeral arrangements following the unauthorized dissection of his body.
The authorities have yet to specify a cause of death, merely writing "sudden death" on his death certificate.
"They didn't stick to the rules in the way they handled this case," Peng Xing said. "They had previously said they would carry out an autopsy, and that it would probably be completed by about Jan. 15."
"Then they said they'd give the family 10 days' notice of cremation, so I don't know why they have suddenly decided to reduce him to ashes now," she said. "We are devastated."
Call for credible autopsy
Peng's family broke years of silence on his case to call for an autopsy by an international medical expert after the discovery of a 1998 handwritten letter from Peng warning his family to suspect foul play, should he meet with an "accident."
Earlier this month, his parents wrote to Chinese president Xi Jinping and to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for a full investigation into their son's death.
Anhui-based rights activist and former state prosecutor Shen Liangqing said the hasty cremation of Peng Ming's remains looks very suspicious.
"The cause of Peng Ming's death was in doubt, and there were a lot of other highly irregular steps taken including locking away the body, and now cremating it without permission," Shen said.
"We still don't know exactly how Peng Ming died, and so all we on the outside can do is suspect, because the Chinese Communist Party makes a habit of killing people," he said.
"There have been so many extrajudicial killings, and Peng Ming was quite a famous political prisoner."
He said Peng could have died suddenly of illness as suggested by the official account, but there is now no way to be sure.
"They should have given a reliable account of his death to the public," Shen said.
Kidnapped on Thai-Myanmar border
Peng fled China soon after writing the warning letter, and had been granted refugee status and settled with his family in the United States. But he was kidnapped by Chinese agents on the Thai-Myanmar border during a visit to Thailand in 2004 to visit his elderly parents.
Brought back to China, Peng was sentenced on Oct. 12, 2005, to life imprisonment after being found guilty of "organizing and leading a terrorist organization," "kidnapping," and "possessing counterfeit money."
He had founded the banned China Development Union (CDU), an intellectual and environment research group that advocated moderate democratic reform and a more eco-friendly economic model.
Born on Oct. 11, 1956 in Hubei, Peng had previously been arrested in January 1999 and accused of visiting prostitutes, a charge that has been used against a number of dissidents in recent years.
He was sentenced without a trial to 18 months in a police-run labor camp for "re-education" after he published his book The Fourth Landmark in Hong Kong in 1998.
In the book, Peng calls for China to find a mode of development suited to its immense population and limited resources rather than to try to surpass Western countries with unrestrained industrialization.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.