Updated at 8:30 a.m. ET on 2013-05-09
Chinese netizens have petitioned the White House to intervene in a long unsolved poisoning case, saying that a suspect is allegedly hiding in the U.S. and that political interference in China has prevented a breakthrough in investigations for 19 years.
But the Chinese authorities on Wednesday rejected any notion of official interference, saying they regretted that the case remains unsolved for such a long time.
The May 3 petition which by Wednesday had garnered more than 138,000 signatures called on U.S. President Barack Obama to track down and deport a woman it claimed was a "suspect" behind the 1994 thallium poisoning that crippled Zhu Ling, a former top-flight Tsinghua University student.
It called for the deportation of Zhu's former roommate, Jasmine Sun, known in Chinese as Sun Wei, although she was only briefly questioned and never charged, and has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case.
Sun is alleged by netizens to have powerful family connections, but RFA has been unable to verify this information independently.
The petition's overwhelming signatures qualify it for a response from Obama's office, which issues official statements in reply to petitions on its "We the People" website that receive 100,000 signatures.
Zhu's poisoning has long generated online interest in China, and following an unrelated student poisoning in Shanghai last month, the cold case has once more been trending on Sina Weibo, China's popular microblogging service, in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, the Beijing municipal police department said in a statement via its official Sina Weibo account that there had been no political interference in the case.
"We still feel great regret that this case remains unsolved to this day," it said.
"The special investigations team consistently conducted the case according to law, and received no interference of any kind."
It said some cases were unavoidably stymied by "objective factors such as lost evidence."
"We thank everyone for their concern," the post said.
White House petition
Zhu's poisoning has garnered interest among China's netizens ever since her friends used the Internet to crowd-source a diagnosis of her symptoms in 1995, with netizens perenially accusing officials of political interference in the case.
The petition named Sun as a "suspect" although she was only briefly questioned and never charged and has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case.
The petition alleged that the case had been "mystically closed due to her family's powerful political connections" and that Sun had moved to the U.S. under an assumed name.
"To protect the safety of our citizens, we petite [petition] that the [U.S.] government investigate and deport her,” it said.
Case unlikely to be re-opened
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping said the Beijing police's post appeared to indicate that the authorities would not be re-opening the investigation, regardless of any U.S. response.
But he said their explanation for closing the case was still inadequate.
"For the police to just put out a statement saying there was no outside interference, means that we still don't understand why the investigation was suddenly halted," Li said.
"I think at the very least, they should review it, all of the materials, and allow lawyers to see it and pick out the parts that are under doubt," he said.
"Then we'd see if the police had failed in their duty."
Anger over impunity for the elite
Netizens targeted Sun—who is rumored to have government connections which have never been confirmed—with the petition at a time of widespread anger over special treatment meted out to the relatives of high-ranking officials, including a string of fatal drink-driving accidents involving the sons of officials.
Guangzhou rights lawyer Sui Muqing said it was legitimate to call for the investigation to be re-opened, although it was wrong for the petition to refer to Sun as a suspect.
"From a legal point of view, we can't say that Sun is the attacker," Sui said.
"But it's easy to imagine that there could have been some kind of official interference.... The [authorities] have refused all along to make public the details of the investigation," he added.
Online writer Yang Hengjun said the police handling of the case and the lack of information was suspicious.
"Why did they only speak out after this tide of tweets emerged?" Yang said. "Surely it wouldn't be too difficult to give us a more detailed explanation?"
Zhu, once a bright young student at "China's M.I.T.," suffered severe neurological damage from the poison, and is paralyzed, nearly blind and diabetic, with the mental capacity of a six-year-old.
The petition on the White House's "We the People" website was soon followed with a number of others with Chinese themes, some against a petrochemical plant in the southwestern province of Sichuan, and others, in apparent satire, calling for U.S. military intervention in China and Hong Kong.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.