HONG KONG — The lawyer and family of Chinese rights activist Cao Shunli, who died earlier this month while in government custody, are trying to get some answers about what killed her. They are appealing to the government through legal channels but so far have received only threats in response.
The day Cao Shunli died, March 14, her brother and sister were called to a hospital in Beijing and saw their sister's dead body.
Cao Yunli, Cao's brother said police and doctors were in the room and her sister looked extremely emaciated and thin.
Since then, the family has been denied access to Cao's body.
Authorities say Cao Shunli suffered from prolonged illness and died of tuberculosis in spite of rescue efforts. But Cao's family insists that she did not receive treatment in prison and repeated requests for medical parole went unanswered.
Beijing-based lawyer Wang Yu has been following Cao's case since September, when authorities barred her from boarding a plane to Geneva and put her under detention. Cao was scheduled to participate in a discussion at the United Nations about human rights in China.
Wang said the family now wants an investigation into the cause of her death, and prosecution for the people responsible.
She said a third party, like the United Nations, should participate in the investigation.
Cao Shunli had been staging peaceful sit ins in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Beijing asking for more grassroots participation into the Universal Periodic Review, a U.N. mechanism that routinely reviews the human rights record of member countries.
In its official response to the U.N., adopted by the Human Rights Council five days after Cao's death, the government wrote, “there is no such issue of suppressing human rights defenders in China.”
But Cao Shunli’s death has drawn concern from rights groups and U.N. authorities, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Last week in Geneva, Beijing objected and interrupted a minute of silence proposed by NGOs in memory of Cao's death during a review of China’s human rights record.
But while China insists it treats all citizens on the basis of the law, people who petition for politically sensitive issues are rarely granted due process or a fair trial. Efforts by their lawyers to find justice are also hampered.
Wang Yu, Cao's lawyer, said she and Cao's family have been subjected to intimidation since they started investigating Cao's death.
Authorities discouraged Cao's family from further pursuing the case.
Wang Yu said officers from the local security bureau sent phone messages to her husband and visited their home.
She said they made references to Liu Xiaofang, a close friend of Cao Shunli and fellow activist who has recently disappeared.
"What they meant is that I could be next," Wang said. "But I did not do anything illegal so they would not have any reason to detain me at this point," she added.
In China, lawyers who defend dissidents or other sensitive clients are heavily monitored, and run the risk of being prosecuted themselves.
A week ago, four well known human rights lawyers were detained in the northern province Heilongjiang after they attempted to visit an illegal detention center known as a “black jail” and file a lawsuit to the local court.
The clients they represented were practitioners of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China.
Instead, authorities charged the lawyers with 15 days administrative detention for “using cult activities to endanger society."
On Thursday, other human rights lawyers circulated messages on their microblog accounts saying the four lawyers, Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, and Wang Cheng had been subject to various degree of torture while under detention. VOA could not independently verify the claims.