Close friends of a Chinese democracy activist who died in police custody in the central province of Hunan last month have questioned the official verdict of suicide by hanging.
Zhang Liangxian, 34, died in the early hours of May 30 at a police-run detention center in Hunan's Loudi city, his girlfriend said on Friday.
"At about 9.00 a.m. on May 30, I suddenly got this phone call from an official, who said he worked in a detention center, and his surname was Li," said Zhang's girlfriend, who gave only her surname Wei.
"He said Zhang Liangxian was going to kill himself there, and he told me to give him his parents' phone number," she said.
"So I gave them to him, but he called back about two minutes later and told me that Zhang Liangxian was already dead."
Zhang's uncle, Zhang Shibin, said the authorities had claimed the activist, who had been detained on suspicion of "dealing in firearms," had hanged himself and that his death was a suicide.
"The detention center informed the local government at around 10.00 a.m. on May 20, and sent the body to the morgue," Zhang Shibin said.
"They told us to send two representatives over to see the body, but they wouldn't let them take in their cell phones or take photos, and they said they would send him straight for cremation if they didn't agree," he added.
Wei said those who saw Zhang's body had reported that he had greenish bruising on his back, and skin injuries on his hands.
Demand for money
According to the rights website Weiquanwang, the head of the detention center, Zhang Wei, had ordered Zhang and Wei to pay them 20,000 yuan in the days before Zhang's death.
The police had then "waived" the payment by way of compensation, and threatened Wei if she spoke about the case to outsiders, he added.
Wei confirmed that when the detention center called her, she initially thought it was to claim the money. "He said it wasn't about the money, but that Zhang Liangxian was going to kill himself," she said.
But Zhang Shibin said the family was highly suspicious of the official account of Zhang's death.
"We watched the closed circuit video from the detention center at the time, but it was very unclear, and we couldn't really see what the dead person looked like," he said.
"We asked to watch their video going back over the last two weeks, but they refused to let us see it."
"There was no basis for the things they wrote in the report on his death, either, which said he died from hanging in his cell," Zhang Shibin said.
The police report said Zhang had hanged himself from a door frame, but his uncle said that seemed unlikely.
"The cell doors are only two meters high, and he was 1.74 meters tall," Zhang Shibin said. "They said he used twisted clothing, but he was wearing short sleeves, and he lacked the means to kill himself."
"His feet were touching the floor."
When contacted by phone on Friday, Zhang Wei declined to comment, hanging up the phone when he heard it was an RFA journalist calling.
Repeated subsequent calls to the number went unanswered.
A similar death
Zhang's death carries eerie echoes of a similar death of fellow veteran pro-democracy activist Li Wangyang, who died in the custody of Hunan police almost exactly a year earlier, on June 6, 2012.
When relatives arrived at the scene of Li Wangyang's death, 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 kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.
A Chinese police investigation into Li's death upheld an earlier verdict of suicide, in spite of widespread public doubts over the claim that the severely disabled 62-year-old hanged himself.
Zhu Chengzhi, a close friend of Li's who questioned the official verdict of suicide, was detained on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power" last year amid a government crackdown on Li's family and friends, which came after they challenged the official account of his death and its immediate aftermath.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.