Death in Custody Unresolved

A Chinese petitioner wages a 10-year battle to win redress for his brother's death in prison.

Wang Shengjie Scars 305.jpg Scars on the body of Wang Shengjie, photographed after his death in custody in 2001.
Photo submitted by family members.

HONG KONG—Wang Shengli has been petitioning the authorities in the northern port city of Tianjin for a decade over the death in prison of his younger brother Wang Shengjie.

Hounded by local officials and sentenced to a year in a labor camp in 2008 for disturbing public order, Wang said his decade of petitioning with no redress had left him close to despair.

"I thought about killing myself sometimes when I was in Beijing," said Wang, who was detained by Tianjin officials on his way to a hospital appointment in the capital in August 2008.

"I thought about death. I couldn't seem to find any hope in staying alive," he said.

"[One time] I stood under the portrait of Chairman Mao on Tiananmen Gate, and bowed to him. I said that today's society is so very dark, and there are so many demons riding the heads of ordinary people, tyrannical abusers, feeding on the people, beating them."

Last month, authorities in Beijing dispersed a group of protesters who gathered near a railway station in the southern part of the capital and sang revolutionary songs from the Mao era.

China’s army of petitioners say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in “black jails,” beaten, and harassed by authorities if they try to take a complaint against local government actions to a higher level of government.

Death in jail

Wang's troubles began after he was contacted in August 2001 by the authorities in Tianjin's Yangliuqing Prison and informed that his brother had died suddenly on Aug. 28 of a heart attack.

Prison officials said Wang Shengjie was on his way to the showers at 3 p.m. after finishing work when he suddenly complained of feeling unwell. He squatted down on the floor, and then collapsed and died, they said.

A state prosecutor at the jail had immediately ordered an autopsy.

"They reported after this examination that there were no marks or injuries on my brother's body, and that there was no evidence that he had been beaten," Wang said.

"They had already sent my brother's body to an undertaker's in Zhongbeixie township."

The next morning, Wang Shengjie's relatives were escorted to the funeral parlor by officials from the local procuratorate.

"I looked and saw that my brother's body was still dressed in prison clothes," Wang recalled. 

"I asked if he was still a criminal. They said that no, he wasn't. So I asked why he was wearing prison clothes."

Wang said his younger sister and a friend was shocked to see Wang Shengjie's body when it was turned over.

"There were more than 20 injuries on my brother's body. There were rope burns and lash marks from a whip, and marks ... on his ankles," he said.

"At the time, the prison officials looked flustered by this, and said that they hadn't seen them before, and that they could lose their jobs over it. I took photos. They tried to stop us. The police also looked very nervous."

Municipal inquiry

Wang said he, his younger sister, and his brother-in-law went to make a complaint the same day at the Tianjin municipal prison management authority.

"A section chief surnamed Zhang saw me, and said that they would investigate the matter for us, and would get us some clear answers."

He said the authorities were unaware that there had been a death at the Yangliuqing prison.

Wang was also seen by Zhou Baodong, an official at the supervision department of the Tianjin municipal procuratorate, who told him to go home and wait for news.

Two days later, he got a call from the state prosecutor offering him 400,000 yuan (U.S. $59,000) in compensation for his brother's death, and that this might be negotiated slightly higher if requested.

Wang refused the offer.

Calls to the Tianjin municipal procuratorate supervision department went unanswered during office hours Thursday.

An official who answered the phone at the Yangliuqing Prison declined requests for an interview, but confirmed that Wang's case existed.

"This involves certain information. I don't know who you really are, and you will have to provide the relevant documents [before you can get an interview]."

Asked to confirm if Wang Shengli had pursued the case of his brother's death with the prison authorities, the employee answered, "Yes, but I am not really familiar with the situation."

Under surveillance

Wang said that after he took his case to the central government complaints office in Beijing, the Tianjin authorities put him under round-the-clock surveillance.

"I was under 24-hour surveillance from the police station and [local officials]. They prevented me from going to Beijing to complain. They treated me as if I were some kind of low-life," Wang said.

Many petitioners who travel to Beijing to complain are picked up by officials from their hometowns, who run representative offices in the capital for the purpose, and escorted back home, where they can face beatings, surveillance, and further detention.

"They told me that if I caused any more trouble, they would 'sort me out' one way or another, whether through unofficial or official means, and that none of it would be good," Wang added.

He said he was even prevented from going to Beijing to see a doctor in August 2008.

"I had to go to the Qianhai Hospital in Beijing to see a doctor," Wang said. "I was carrying four large X-ray sheets and two clinical diagnostic letters ... I never thought that they would detain me while I was on the No. 20 bus."

Wang was sentenced to a year's re-education through labor two days later, an administrative sentence of up to three years without trial, for causing a disturbance in a public place in Beijing.

"They had no evidence whatsoever. I hadn't done anything to violate discipline in my trip to Beijing," Wang said.

To this day, the case of Wang Shengjie's death in custody remains unresolved.

Last December, more than 200 petitioners called on China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), to ratify two United Nations human rights covenants, which they said would give legal recognition to their struggle to protect their rights as citizens.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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