Former Tiananmen dissident Li Wangyang's body was cremated yesterday, three days after his suspicious death in hospital, stoking criticism of the authorities in Shaoyang, Hunan province.
Friends of Li, 62, insisted his family had not consented to the cremation, and a legal expert said anyone who destroyed a body without consent could face imprisonment.
The cremation came a day after an autopsy against the wishes of the family and from which they were barred, according to friends.
'Can we say no if the government orders us to [cremate Li's body]?' the the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy quoted an unnamed member of staff at a funeral parlour in Shaoyang as saying.
The suspicious death of the activist, who spent 21 years in jail following the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement, continued to reverberate in Hong Kong, with more local deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC) calling on Beijing to look into the case. A protest march to demand that authorities establish the real cause of Li's death will be held in the city today.
Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying declined to comment publicly on Li's death, but said he would safeguard Hongkongers' freedom of speech and expression.
'As a Chinese, I care about what is happening in the mainland. And certainly I have my own view, but I am not prepared to comment on this issue in public,' Leung said.
Li's death in Shaoyang on Wednesday caused a public outcry at home and abroad, although police continue to insist he hanged himself.
Ong Yew-kim, a Hong Kong-based expert on mainland law, said: 'The cause of Li's death had not yet been made clear.'
Li Fangping, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, said police were entitled to deal with the bodies of those who died abnormally. But Ong said they could only do so under special circumstances, such as during an epidemic - and Li's case seemed not to warrant such urgency.
A worker at the funeral parlour told Cable TV that Li's sister and brother-in-law had given signed consent to his cremation. However, a number of Li's friends said they had seen no evidence the authorities had approval from Li's family.
Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said the the central government's silence showed it was 'conniving' with the Shaoyang officials.
Miriam Lau Kin-yee, a deputy to the NPC, was shocked to learn of the cremation. Fellow deputy Maria Tam Wai-chu urged the authorities to handle the matter in a 'fair and legal manner'.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Cheng