Amnesty International today demanded that Chinese authorities initiate a full, independent investigation into the death of a former prisoner of conscience, amid outrage among China’s activist community.
Li Wangyang, who was released from prison last year, was found dead Wednesday in a hospital in Shaoyang city, Hunan province. He has suffered from multiple health problems since his release, in part due to the torture and ill-treatment Li suffered during his prison term.
In the past 24 hours, thousands have signed an online petition by a group of activists who dispute the authorities’ explanation that Li committed suicide by hanging himself. Li’s family and friends have also cast doubt on the reported cause of death.
“Li Wangyang was a tireless human rights campaigner who suffered for years at the hands of the Chinese government,” said Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington, D.C. office of Amnesty International. “At a minimum, the claims made by Li’s family and friends that his death was not a suicide must be thoroughly investigated by Chinese authorities.”
Li’s body was found with a cotton noose tied around his neck. According to his relatives, his feet were still touching the ground when they saw him.
Police reportedly prevented relatives and friends from taking detailed photos of the body at the hospital. They took the body away and have been guarding it since. It is unclear whether the authorities will allow a full post-mortem investigation.
Li was a prominent figure in the labor rights movement who had been persecuted by the Chinese authorities over the past two decades. In 1989, he was involved in setting up the Shaoyang Workers’ Autonomous Federation. That same year, he was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for his involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
While held in solitary confinement, Li was reportedly severely beaten by prison guards. He was moved to a hospital in June 1996 to receive treatment, but eight months later was taken back to prison.
Li was released early in June 2000 because of his poor health. He began petitioning the authorities for compensation to cover the cost of medical treatment, but in May 2001 he was re-arrested after he went on hunger strike.
He was given a 10-year sentence for “inciting subversion” and was finally freed in May 2011.
On June 2, 2012, the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement, Li gave an interview to overseas media where he spoke about the torture which had left him both blind and almost deaf. He also said that he would continue to fight for a democratic China.
“Though the exact circumstances surrounding Li’s death are unknown, his lifelong courage and commitment to justice in China is without question,” added Jannuzi. “His suffering testifies to the government’s abysmal human rights record; his death serves as a somber reminder of the work that remains.”