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Death of Activist in Chinese Custody Sparks Outcry

FILE - China's flag.
FILE - China's flag.

The death of an environmental activist in police custody has sparked an outcry in China and highlights growing discontent among the country's middle class.

Relatives have said Lei Yang left his home this month in Beijing to pick up a relative from the airport. Within a couple of hours, he was dead.

Police say Lei had visited a brothel, which was disguised as a foot massage parlor. When police raided the brothel, Lei and several other people were arrested.

Authorities said he died of a heart attack while in their custody; but, the death has raised questions among his family members, who have demanded an independent autopsy, and the Chinese public.

Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said what makes this case different from others involving police brutality in the mainland is Lei’s middle class background.

“Police brutality and the use of torture in custody have been a problem for a very, very long time, and periodically it receives national attention, because of various cases of deaths in police custody. So there has been some pressure for the police to reform; but, I think this case in particular has received a lot of attention right now because of Lei Yang’s background,” she said.

Questions remain

A Beijing hospital said Lei was dead on arrival and his family members say he had bruises on his arms and head. The police deny any responsibility for his death, and say he incurred the bruises when falling to the ground after attempting to escape from a police vehicle.

Chinese state news media have reported extensively on Lei’s death, provoking criticism on Chinese social media.

William Nee, a China researcher with Amnesty International, said, “A person with an environmental science degree from the most prestigious university in the country, in the prime of his life, 29 years old, with a new baby, kind of the type of kid that any parent would want to have, who suddenly and mysteriously is killed in police custody, and this is what has raised so many questions. Of course there are lots of cases of police brutality around the country.”

Lei’s alumni at Renmin University of China have circulated petitions demanding answers surrounding the circumstances of his death. One read, “Looking over the entire episode of Lei Yang’s homicide, it looks more like a malicious act of randomly targeting ordinary people or middle class urbanites than an accident...Even if he had moral shortcomings, like the rest of us, he didn’t deserve to die. Even if he was unhappy with the way he was being handled and might have obstructed official business, he should not have been executed on the spot without a trial!”

Domestic and international attention

Reggie Littlejohn, a U.S. rights activist who has spoken out against China’s use of police brutality, said in other well-publicized cases, international attention has been able to bring out change.

“Those who are familiar or who have dedicated their lives to human rights in China know that when someone becomes brutalized, if that person becomes known in the West, and there’s a movement behind them, then actually they get treated better in China. So, even though the Chinese government says they don’t care what we think, actually they do care what we think, and so I think one of the big ways to end this is international pressure,” she said.

With Lei’s case, the brunt of the criticism and questioning of police brutality are coming from within China.

Beijing police say they are conducting a thorough investigation of his death, and have promised a “zero tolerance” policy if police misconduct is found.