Five petitioners who drank pesticide in a suicide pact in Beijing on Tuesday to protest their forced eviction have 'disappeared' after being taken to hospital, relatives said on Wednesday.
Zhao Jinlan, Wu Mingfeng, Zhu Qingdi, Zhang Yijiang, and Li Cuilan attempted suicide outside the offices of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in protest at their forced eviction by authorities in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
The four women and one man were among a crowd of several hundred that has gathered daily in protest outside the commission since the central authorities in Beijing banned citizens from complaining to higher levels of government as a first resort.
"It seems that they were all taken to hospital," fellow Jiangsu petitioner Zhao Chunqin told RFA. "One of them, Zhang Yijiang, had drunk more pesticide than the rest of them, and she was pretty severely poisoned."
But repeated calls to the five petitioners' cell phones failed to connect on Wednesday, relatives said.
"I can't get through when I try to call her," Zhang Jinlan's husband Feng Zhiping said. "I don't know anything about her situation, and I'm very worried."
He said he had no idea of his wife's plans for the suicide protest. "If I had, of course I would have talked her out of it," he said.
"She would only do this if there was really no other option left," he added. "She must have felt that she had reached the end of the road, because the injustices she suffered were too great."
No help given
Liaoning-based rights activist Jiang Jiawen was present when the protest took place, and told RFA in an interview on Wednesday that police hadn't carried out any first aid on the petitioners after they fell to the ground, but instead stood and photographed them.
"The petitioners were all shouting 'they drank poison, they committed suicide' after they fell over," Jiang said.
"There were two police vehicles behind me with officers in them, about 40-50 meters from the people who drank the pesticide, but...they basically just sat there watching them die."
"After about five or six minutes, some plainclothes and uniformed officers came out of the gate of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, but they didn't do anything to help the people," Jiang said.
"Instead, they started seizing cell phones from anyone who was taking photos."
Jiang said the authorities hadn't disclosed which hospital the petitioners were going to.
"Usually, once they get to the hospital, the local government [from their hometown] would be called, because they would be the ones to foot the hospital bill," Jiang said.
"Once their lives have been saved, they they will likely be put under detention [of some kind] or even sentenced to jail."
He said all five petitioners had started foaming at the mouth soon after swallowing the pesticide.
"The reason for this is very clear," Jiang added. "On May 1, the Communist Party issued new rules saying they would no longer accept petitioners complaining to higher levels of authority."
"They wouldn't carry out such a desperate act if they weren't in despair," he said.
Growing number of suicides
Attempted suicides are growing increasingly common among disgruntled petitioners, many of whom are forced evictees, and most of whom pursue complaints against local officials for years or even decades with no result.
Last December, 13 protesters staged a mass suicide attempt in Beijing after a failed bid to win compensation over forced eviction from their homes.
In a protest timed to coincide with World Human Rights Day, the group drank pesticide simultaneously in protest at their forced eviction three years earlier in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Zhang's husband Feng Zhiping said their family home was demolished by [the government] five years ago, and said he and Zhang had already lost two lawsuits linked to the forced evictions.
He said Zhang's mother had died after a severe beating at the hands of officials when she tried to complain about being made homeless, but attempts to win redress had led nowhere.
"We went to the Ministry of Public Security but they brought us back before we even got there and locked us up in a black jail," Feng said, referring to the system of unofficial detention centers and "legal study centers" used to hold those who complain.
'Army of petitioners'
China's army of petitioners files nearly 20,000 grievances in person every day to complaints offices across the country, according to official figures released last November.
The government's complaints website currently receives around 1,200 complaints on any working day online, many of them linked to forced evictions.
Violent forced evictions, often resulting in deaths and injuries, are continuing to rise in China, as cash-strapped local governments team up with development companies to grab property in a bid to boost revenue, according to a recent report by rights group Amnesty International.
Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 to 2011 alone due to forced evictions. That compares to fewer than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.
However, many petitioners report being held in "black jails," beaten, or otherwise harassed, if they persist in a complaint beyond its initial rejection at a local level.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.