Authorities on the outskirts of Beijing are investigating the death of a young man in police custody amid growing public suspicion that he was tortured or beaten to death.
Lei Yang, 29, was detained on Saturday by police during after a raid on a foot massage parlor in Changping county, just north of the Chinese capital.
However, his family says that he had left home too late that evening to have been a client there, in spite of police accusations that he was using the services of prostitutes.
And his former classmates at the prestigious Renmin University, where Yang graduated with a master’s degree in environmental science in 2009, have launched an online petition calling for a thorough investigation of his death.
Police refused to allow Lei's family and friends to take photos of his body, which family members said showed bruises on his head and arms.
Lei's brother Lei Peng declined to comment on Wednesday, indicating that the family is likely under close police surveillance.
"It's not convenient for me to tell you anything right now, and there have been no new developments," he said, using phrasing that suggests he was in the company of police officers.
Chinese news website Caixin.com cited eyewitnesses as saying that Lei was seen "screaming for help" as he was pursued in a residential compound by several plainclothes officers.
The Changping police department said Lei had "resisted and attempted to run away" when they tried to arrest him on suspicion of using the services of prostitutes.
Police took coercive measures against him, but then Lei "suddenly felt ill," police said in a statement.
Cameras 'all broken'
When Lei's friend demanded to see surveillance footage, they were told that the cameras were "all broken," and that the surveillance footage was gone.
An officer who answered the phone at the Xiaokou police station in Changping declined to comment on Lei's death.
"You need to talk to the district police department propaganda bureau," the officer said.
An official who answered the phone at the Changping police department propaganda department also offered no comment.
"This case is still under investigation, and we have already posted a statement on our social media account," the official said. "As soon as our investigations are concluded, we will make another statement, so follow us [on social media]."
Calls to the Changping county state prosecutor's office went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Beijing-based lawyer Ma Gangquan said the police claims are extremely dubious.
"Even if the equipment is broken, the digital files will still be there," Ma said. "They should ideally release the full video of the arrest proceedings to the public."
Meanwhile, the Changping county prosecutor's office has said it is investigating Lei's death.
According to Zheng Xu, deputy director of the Institute of Criminal Procedure at the China University of Politics and Law, certain procedures should always be triggered by deaths in police custody.
"The police should report them immediately to the prosecution service, so that they can investigate," Zheng said. "That investigation focuses on two things: the first is the cause of death, whether Lei Yang died of natural causes, of illness or whether he was beaten to death, whether the police tried to force a confession out of him in the course of their investigations, and whether the people guarding him tortured him or committed any other criminal actions."
"The second thing is whether or not the police were acting legally in carrying out those investigations in the first place," Zheng added.
Lei's friends and family said he was en route to the airport to pick up visiting friends when he was detained.
A police source in Changping county told RFA it is "normal" for police to pin people to the ground and apply handcuffs if they resist arrest.
"He was a strapping young lad who played a lot of football, and he was in pretty good shape. If you are only one-to-one with him and he resists, or even tries to escape, then how are you supposed to subdue him?" the source said. "You have to shove him to the ground and put handcuffs on him. This is normal operating procedure."
"As for straddling him and sitting on him when he's down, you have to be careful, so as not to injure [the suspect]."
Meanwhile, former investigative journalist Li Jianjun said the timeline of events leading up to Lei's being pronounced dead at 10.55 p.m., according to the police version of the story, didn't seem credible.
"I don't think he could have been visiting prostitutes, because there wasn't enough time," Li said. "He left home at 9.00 p.m., after which he was supposed to have had time to visit a prostitute, get arrested, be interrogated, and ... be taken to hospital [by 10.05 p.m.]."
"How would he have the time to fit all of that in?"
He said Lei's demeanor didn't fit the profile of people caught in police raids on brothels and similar establishments.
"Usually, people who really are caught with prostitutes are pretty docile when they are detained by police, because they are afraid of losing face [if they are discovered], even really high-ranking officials," Li said.
Li said the abuse of power is a frequent phenomenon in China, but that many people don't even think that it could happen to them.
"A lot of people here in China don't care much about how the country is run, and are pretty indifferent to a lot of the suffering and hardship that takes place here," he said. "But then, one day, this sort of thing happens to them, too. He probably never thought this could happen to him. But it could happen to me, too."
Reported by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wang Siu-san and Chan Siu-po for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.