A Chinese police investigation into the death of blind dissident Li Wangyang maintained Thursday an earlier verdict of suicide, in spite of widespread public doubts over the claim that the severely disabled 62-year-old hanged himself.
In an investigation lasting from June 19 to July 9, the Hunan provincial police department looked into the cause of Li's death, a police spokesman said in a statement.
"The investigation determined that Li Wangyang committed suicide," the spokesman told reporters.
The provincial-level report also said that Li Wangyang's sister, Li Wangling and her husband Zhao Baozhu no longer wished to have contact with the media following Li's cremation.
Li Wangyang died at a hospital in Shaoyang city in the custody of local police 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.
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 have kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.
An official who answered the phone at the municipal government in Li's home city of Shaoyang declined to comment on the report.
"Please can you contact the overseas propaganda department," the official said. "We don't know about any specific details."
However, calls to the overseas propaganda department went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Li's supporters immediately rejected the new verdict.
"Judicial processes in mainland China right now do not inspire people's confidence," said Jinan-based lawyer Liu Guowei, who acts as a spokesman for a group set up to establish the cause of Li's death. "Everything they do is behind closed doors, and not open to the public."
"So it is very hard to believe [this report]," he said, adding that the group would continue to campaign for the truth about Li's death.
"As long as the slightest doubt remains, we won't drop this," Liu said.
Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, told reporters he didn't believe the latest report because the authorities had never published the results of the autopsy.
"In Hong Kong, no-one believes that Li Wangyang killed himself," Lee said. "No-one believes, either, this report that came from cronies investigating themselves."
"We don't believe that the Hunan police aren't simply covering the backs of other officials."
Lee said his group would continue to call for an investigation led by officials from the central government in Beijing.
"Li Wangyang should get justice," he said.
Meanwhile, police continued to hold Li's relatives and fellow rights activists incommunicado, investigating some of them over their involvement with the campaign for a fuller investigation into his death.
Calls to the mobile phones of rights activists Huang Lihong, Yin Zheng'an, Ouyang Jinghua, and Li Zanmin all went unanswered on Thursday, with recorded messages saying their phones were either "turned off" or had "temporarily suspended service."
Lei Deming, a long-time friend of Li Wangyang's, said a lot of people with links to the activist were now under house arrest or close surveillance at their homes.
"It's not convenient [for me to talk]," Lei said. Asked if people were following or listening to his conversation, he answered: "Pretty much. I don't have much liberty."
A second Shaoyang activist, Li Deming, said many of his friends were now incommunicado.
"There hasn't been much let-up, and wherever you go, there are people watching you," he said. "We haven't been able to track down the whereabouts of the people who set up the group to investigate [Li Wangyang's death]."
Last week, state security police visited Beijing-based rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong and Hubei-based democracy activist Shi Yulin this week, questioning them about their involvement with the campaign.
Activists are also concerned about the whereabouts of Li Wangyang's close friend and supporter Zhu Chengzhi, who failed to re-appear even after his administrative detention had ended. Zhu is believed to be held in the Shaoyang Detention Center, but his location has yet to be verified, according to rights lawyers.
Zhu was among several activists seized on June 9. He was subsequently given a 10-day detention on a charge of "disrupting social order" after casting doubts online about how Li died, according to the overseas-based group China Human Rights Defenders.
Thousands of people signed an online petition, joining growing calls for a government probe into Li's death, after official claims that he killed himself while in police custody were disputed by friends, relatives, and rights activists.
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 military crackdown on the student led pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
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. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.