New Chinese investigation says high-profile dissident committed suicide

Posters of high-profile Chinese dissident Li Wangyang during a pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong earlier this month.

Story highlights

  • Outrage over Li Wangyang's death has provoked protests in Hong Kong
  • The new investigation is the result of public pressure
  • But it concludes that the cause of death was suicide
  • Hong Kong officials and human rights activists have questioned that idea

Chinese officials concluded that the controversial death of a high-profile Chinese dissident who had spent more than 20 years in jail for his support of the Tiananmen Square protests was the result of suicide, a state-controlled news agency reported.

Li Wangyang was found on June 6 hanging in his room at the Daxiang District People's Hospital in Shaoyang, Hunan Province. The authorities said at the time that he had committed suicide -- a claim friends of the deaf and blind labor rights activist described as "insulting" and "ridiculous."

Hong Kong government officials and human rights activists publicly questioned whether Li killed himself. That pressure helped prompt Hunan officials in mid-June to ask forensic experts from outside the province to carry out a new autopsy investigation into Li's death.

That investigation reached the same conclusion as before, according to a report Thursday from the Hong Kong China News Agency citing the Hunan Provincial Public Security Bureau. The examination was carried out by five legal medical experts from the Forensic Pathology Association of China, the report said.

Calls to local officials seeking further comment on Li's death and the investigation rang unanswered Friday.

The circumstances surrounding Li's death have led to large demonstrations in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, most notably during a visit two weeks ago by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.

The Hong Kong goverment issued a statement Thursday saying that it had noted the result of the investigation but would not comment on the subject. It said it had "conveyed the public's concerns over the matter" to Beijing.

    Li's death came two days after the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. Li, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for mobilizing local workers in support of the student democracy movement, would have been under 24-hour watch because of the sensitive nature of the anniversary, his supporters and human rights groups have pointed out.

    After serving most of his initial sentence, Li -- by then rendered nearly deaf and blind, allegedly by torture during his imprisonment -- was sentenced to another 10-year prison sentence in 2001 for "inciting subversion of state power." He was admitted to the hospital shortly after being released last year.

    According to friends who had visited him before his death, Li did not appear to be someone who intended to kill himself.

    Amnesty International and Human Rights in China have cited relatives' accounts that Li's feet were still on the ground when he was found hanging in his room, and that being blind and unable to walk unaccompanied, he would have been hard pressed to find a noose.

    Appeals at the time by the family for an autopsy in the presence of a lawyer of their choice were refused, and his body taken away, according to Amnesty.

    There are now concerns about the safety of Li's relatives. His sister Li Wangyang and her husband, Zhao Baozhu, were detained on June 9, Amnesty said in a statement this week. They have not been heard of since June 9 and their whereabouts are unknown, it said.

    In an interview with the Hong Kong television station iCable just before his death, Li said, "I was just sentenced to jail and am not yet beheaded. Even if I were beheaded, I would not regret it. For democracy and the survival of the country, ordinary man should take responsibility."

    Li is among more than two-dozen Chinese political prisoners named in the U.S. State Department's country report on China's Human Rights Practices for 2011.