A prominent Chinese human rights activist died on Friday after she was denied medical treatment for months while in detention, according to her brother and fellow activists who blasted the government for using medical care as leverage to silence critics.
Cao Shunli, 52, who had been in police custody since September last year and was suffering from various medical conditions, was admitted to intensive care at the Beijing Qinghe 999 Hospital last month, and later transferred to the 309 Military Hospital where she died.
Lawyers say they had urged officials holding her to allow her medical treatment but no action was taken until she was seriously ill. She suffered from tuberculosis in both her lungs, cirrhosis of the liver, and uterine fibroids.
Cao went into detention in ill health, and told her lawyer in October that she was not receiving medical treatment, according to Human Rights in China (HRIC), a Chinese non-governmental organization based in New York and Hong Kong.
"Cao’s lawyer made several requests for medical parole," it said in a statement. "The authorities did not respond to those requests."
But on Feb. 20, the day the family was informed of Cao’s critical condition, an official from the Chaoyang District Detention Center, where Cao was held until she was hospitalized, asked her family to apply for medical parole, which the authorities approved one week later, HRIC said.
"[It's] so merciless, so sad," Cao’s brother Cao Yunli told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"I've never seen someone who looks the way she does now. I am even scared to look at her. I couldn't even treat a dog like that. I don’t understand why people are so merciless. Why didn’t they just shoot her dead?"
Cao Shunli was set to travel to Switzerland to take part in a U.N. Human Rights Council review last September but police detained her at Beijing's international airport. She had earlier joined a rare protest outside China's foreign ministry in June last year to demand greater participation in the U.N.'s review of human rights in China.
"Cao Shunli's death exposes just how callous and calculating the Chinese authorities are prepared to be to silence critics," rights group Amnesty International said.
"The authorities today have blood on their hands," said Anu Kultalahti, Amnesty's China researcher. "Cao Shunli was a courageous woman who paid the ultimate price for the fight for human rights in China. She should have never been detained in the first place; but to then deny her the medical treatment she desperately needed is a most barbaric act.”
Others denied medical treatment
Beijing-based dissident Hu Jia said on his Twitter account: "The [Chinese] Communist Party should take full responsibility for her death."
Other prominent Chinese activists, including Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, have been denied medical treatment.
Liu Xia, who is under extrajudicial house arrest, was denied treatment for a serious heart condition. She was finally allowed to receive hospital treatment in late February.
“The denial of medical treatment for activists in detention is common in order to weaken or punish them. The Chinese authorities must immediately end this unlawful and inhumane practice,” Kultalahti said.
Cao’s lawyer Wang Yu told RFA that the Chinese authorities should be held accountable for her death.
"We will hold the detention center, police bureau, prosecutor, and hospital accountable”.
Wang told HRIC that the hospital initially refused to allow her and family members to view Cao's body, but later allowed only the family to do so.
She also said that a number of Cao's supporters were taken away by the police while attempting to enter the hospital.
Rights activist Liu Xiaofang, who was close to Cao, has not been heard from in days, and calls to her mobile phone went unanswered.
Liu told HRIC last month that a doctor at the 309 Military Hospital said Cao was already in extremely critical condition when she was transferred there on Feb. 20.
Cao's death came just five days before the United Nations Human Rights Council is scheduled to consider the report of China's second human rights review under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, to which Cao submitted a civil society report detailing the plight of petitioners in China.
China won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in November along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, despite criticism of their rights records.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Feng Xiaoming. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.