Shandong Death Ruled ‘Suicide’

Police in China rule a detainee’s death a suicide in what family members say may be a move to avoid an incriminating autopsy.

2008-12-17
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ChinaShandongChangyiPrison121608b Map showing the location of the Changyi city Public Security Bureau detention center.
RFA

HONG KONG—Police in China’s eastern Shandong province have refused to allow an autopsy on a prisoner who died after injuries suspected to have been caused by torture left him comatose, according to the man's son and a lawyer representing his family.

Records kept by the prisoner indicated that Wang Fengsheng had previously suffered abuse at the hands of his captors, Beijing-based attorney Liu Jianjun said.

Officials have promised Wang's family members 50,000 yuan (U.S. $7,300) in so-called “relief money” in exchange for their signature registering the death as a suicide, the man’s son said in an interview.

He committed suicide by hanging himself. An autopsy was not performed because the pre-condition for an autopsy was not met."
Prosecutor Wang Lifeng

A Changyi city prosecutor, speaking in an interview Wednesday, insisted that Wang committed suicide and said the family had rejected the offer of compensation as too little. "We would still consider paying them some money if they want to settle this case," Wang Lifeng said.

Wang Fengsheng, a resident of Houwang village in Changyi city, was sentenced to one year in prison after a fight with a fellow villager. He began serving the sentence in August 2007.

But in April 2008, authorities at the Changyi Public Security Bureau’s detention center informed Wang’s family that he had tried to commit suicide by hanging himself and had been hospitalized after suffering lack of oxygen to the brain.

Wang Fengsheng died Nov. 18, after several months during which he was unable to speak or write.

Suspicious that he had died from injuries caused by torture, Wang’s family members posted a notice on the Internet about the death, which came days before a U.N. report on the widespread use of torture in China.

‘They lied to us’

Wang's son, Wang Faquan, said in an interview that authorities had informed him that his father had attempted to hang himself, using a piece of string, from a metal window sill in his cell, but that they were unable to determine why he had wanted to kill himself.

“They lied to us. On April 15 we went to visit the prison, but they said that he had been punished and was in solitary confinement. They wouldn't let us in to see him. On April 17, they telephoned me to say my father had to be hospitalized,” Wang Faquan said.

He said that during the two days during which his father underwent surgery, officials gave the family no information about what procedures were being performed. They were only told of his condition afterward.

“They performed skull surgery after the guard watching him signed a form giving permission. The hospital medical record showed that at the time he was hospitalized, his head had an external wound. From the day he had the accident we made requests for a forensic examination, but the authorities have still done nothing,” he said.

‘He was certainly strangled’

After his death, Wang Fengsheng’s family members made several requests to prison authorities to provide them with a detailed report, including what may have been recorded on the prison’s closed-circuit television, photos of the death scene, eyewitness accounts, and other evidence.

But each response to the family presented a different version of events, relatives said.

One included a video that didn't show what was happening to Wang at the time of his injury, while another showed strangulation marks on Wang’s neck that were inconsistent with the description of his suicide attempt.

Liu Jianjun, the family’s lawyer, said that all signs showed Wang’s death was actually a result of torture in the detention center.

“The string that authorities at the prison said Wang used to hang himself did not match up to the wound on his neck ... At that time he would have had a circular and evenly distributed scar,” Liu said.

Liu said that hanging victims don't display marks behind their necks, as suggested by officials from the detention center in Wang’s medical records, because stress from a rope would be evenly distributed.

“He was certainly strangled by someone using a metal wire. The medical record could not be altered by the public security officials,” he said.

In addition, Liu said, a former fellow inmate indicated in written testimony that Wang Fengsheng kept a record of his past abuse at the hands of the head of the detention center, which would point towards a history of violence against him.

Contacted by telephone, the police officer who informed the family of Wang’s situation confirmed that Wang had died.

But when the officer realized he was speaking to a reporter, he said he was unsure of what had occurred on the day Wang was hospitalized.

Relief funds

For several months up until the time of Wang’s death, family members repeatedly demanded an investigation into what they saw as inadequate evidence that he had attempted suicide.

The political law department of the Public Security Bureau refused their requests.

At one point in August, members of the department offered Wang’s family 50,000 yuan in “relief funds” on condition that they sign a document agreeing that Wang Fengsheng had attempted suicide.

“They said that if we acknowledged this was a suicide attempt they would immediately give us 50,000 yuan. At the time they made the offer, my father was still alive in a coma,” Wang’s son, Wang Faquan said.

“We wouldn't agree,” he said.

Liu Jianjun said officials have since contacted him about the possibility of "compensation," which he said could indicate that they are worried about information in the case leaking out to the public.

"The Public Security Bureau called me and suggested we sit down to discuss issue of a compensation amount. Wang’s son keeps posting articles on the Internet and Wang’s wife has threatened to petition in Beijing," he said.

"I have a feeling that police are scared because we have 100 percent evidence [proving that Wang Fengsheng was tortured to death]."

'Suicide by hanging'

Wang Lifeng, a prosecutor of Changyi city, insisted in a telephone interview Wednesday that Wang Fengsheng killed himself.

“We as prosecutors did not find any facts linking criminal activities to this case. He committed suicide by hanging himself. An autopsy was not performed because the pre-condition for an autopsy was not met. An investigation did not discover the reason or motivation for his suicide,” he said.

But Wang Lifeng didn't rule out the possibility of settling the case by paying compensation.

“He is an inmate, therefore he should deal with the consequences of committing suicide. But at that time, after considering his disability, he was offered a relief fund. His family members thought the money was inadequate. We would still consider paying them some money if they want to settle this case,” Wang said.

‘Torture is a common phenomenon’

Lawyer Liu Jianjun says that torture is common in China's prisons and often the only hope for families of victims is to get a reasonable amount of compensation.

"The more the better for compensation. As to whether or not to pursue criminal responsibility ... torture is quite a common phenomenon and punishing an individual policeman won't improve the overall situation. For the victim’s family, it is more practical to get the money than to see a policeman prosecuted," he said.

"What we are trying to say is that you can’t settle a death case with only 50,000 yuan."

The United Nations Committee Against Torture announced last month that despite China’s signing of the Convention Against Torture, torture is still widely practiced in the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called the report biased and unfair, and said that it resulted from a prejudice against China amongst the committee's members.

At present, Wang Fengsheng’s body remains in a funeral parlor and will not undergo further medical examination without authorization from the Public Security Bureau. Attorney Liu said that cases like this, which investigate criminal responsibility on the part of officials, are difficult.

“Because this problem arose in a detention center and the family must apply to the Public Security Bureau for a medical examiner to conduct an autopsy, there will be no conclusion. Investigating criminal responsibility in these cases is extremely challenging.”

“This kind of cruelty is all too common in China, and even though instances resulting in fatalities are few, torture exists everywhere in this country,” Liu said.

“Only a few days after Wang’s death, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang still refuted the Committee Against Torture’s criticism of torture in China. I would ask what is the meaning of this statement? In China this kind of phenomenon exists everywhere.”

Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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