A month-long probe by Hunan's provincial authorities into the mysterious death of June 4 dissident Li Wangyang has upheld the previous official verdict that the frail rights activist committed suicide.
Lengthy reports on the investigation into Li's death, which sparked a public outcry and mass protests involving tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong, were released by the provincial police authorities last night through the Beijing-backed Hong Kong China News Agency instead of more popular channels such as Xinhua.
Li Xiaokui, the police chief of Shaoyang, the city where Li Wangyang was found hanged in a hospital ward on June 6 also confirmed the verdict of suicide. 'The result [of the provincial probe] is out and Li was found to have ... committed suicide,' Li said yesterday .
The reports said Li, who was blind and deaf and could barely walk after being tortured during the 21 years he spent in jail for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, tore a strip from his bed sheet which he used to hang himself from the window while his roommate slept.
However, that conclusion contradicts one of 'accidental death' in a previous statement by the city's Daxiang district government, which was released shortly after about 25,000 people protested in Hong Kong on June 10, demanding an open inquiry into the case.
In an apparent bid to defuse mounting public anger over Li's death and the hasty cremation of his body, the reports, running to a total of more than 10,000 words, go into great length to justify how Li could hang himself with his feet on the ground.
'[The joint investigation team] confirmed Li hanged himself with a strip of cloth from his own bed sheets. The handling of the scene of Li Wangyang's death, the autopsy ... and the cremation were all handled properly,' the investigation report said.
In Hong Kong, activists and a medical expert questioned the report's findings, saying it failed to dispel concerns that Li was killed. A spokesman for the Hong Kong government declined to comment.
The Hong Kong China News Agency claimed Li's younger sister, Li Wangling, and her husband, Zhao Baozhu, accepted the verdict on Wednesday. It also released a handwritten note allegedly signed by Li Wangling more than a month ago saying that her brother's case was settled and that they did not want to contact the outside world - an apparent response to mounting suspicion caused by the disappearance of Li Wangling and Zhao after they protested about his death on June 8.
One of the reports was compiled by a team of forensic and criminal investigation experts to address 'heightened attention from some overseas media'. The other two were compiled by Hunan police.
However, with the cremation of Li's body, the second probe was mainly based on a review of documents from the initial police investigation, the 'completely videotaped' autopsy and interviews with medical staff and other patients.
In an apparent bid to dismiss widespread concerns about the possibility that Li was murdered by security officers who kept him under close surveillance, the reports said closed-circuit cameras showed no one entered his ward apart from medical staff and his roommate.
The reports also insisted the cremation was carried out 'at the request of relatives' and in the presence of Li Wangling and Zhao.
Li's friends said they were not surprised by the result but were outraged. They said the latest probe failed to address public doubts surrounding the circumstances of Li's death and lambasted increased efforts by the Hunan authorities to stifle Li's friends. They also asked for public access to surveillance camera tapes and about the whereabouts of Li's relatives and many friends.
A friend of Li, who refused to be named for fears of reprisals, said the new reports were 'totally unacceptable'. 'I've met Li several times and no one believes he was the kind of person who would have committed suicide [after his persistent fighting against injustice],' he said.
Tang Jingling, a legal rights activist who Li Wangling asked for legal advice, said the probes were obviously aimed at assuaging public anger, which became evident ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit to Hong Kong to mark the 15th anniversary of the handover on July 1.
'If mainland authorities are serious about addressing apparent flaws in the local government's handling of Li's case, why cannot his relatives and friends ... clearly muzzled or even under police custody, talk to the press and other friends freely?' he asked.
He said the central government may have played a role in the handling of Li's case, citing reports that activists across the mainland were barred from travelling to Shaoyang after Li's death.