Investigation Maintains Activist’s Death Was Suicide

A month-long investigation of the death of Hunan labour activist Li Wangyang has upheld the official explanation of suicide, but suspicion of foul play remains. Supporters say that Li was in no frame of mind to take his own life, having told an interviewer days before that “I won’t retreat, even if I am beheaded.” From Andrew Jacobs at The New York Times:

Critics have assailed the contention that Mr. Li killed himself, saying his poor health — he was almost entirely blind, deaf and physically weak — made it unlikely that he could orchestrate his own hanging. They also questioned how he carried out the suicide given the presence of police minders outside his hospital room.

Commissioned by the Hunan Province Public Security Bureau in response to the public uproar over Mr. Li’s death, the report cited “experts” who reviewed surveillance video and determined that only nurses, caregivers and his roommates had entered Mr. Li’s room in the hours before his body was found hanging from a window.

It also said that Mr. Li’s body bore no signs of trauma and that a forensic investigation had determined he died from hanging — a rebuttal to those who cited a post-mortem photograph, widely circulated on the Internet, that appeared to show Mr. Li’s feet touching the ground. “People have been hanged in positions that include standing, sitting or even lying down,” the report said.

That much, at least, is accurate. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found, based on English coroners’ reports, that “in only half the cases (52%) were victims fully suspended with both feet off the ground“:

Information on degree of suspension was available for 149 cases. Seventy-eight of these (52.4%) were found totally suspended (both feet above the ground). In about one-quarter (35 out of 149, 23.5%) the subjects were suspended with their feet touching the ground, in 11 cases (7.4%) they were kneeling, in 13 lying (8.7%) and in 7 seated (4.7%). The precise position was unclear in a further 5 cases involving partial suspension (3.4%).

Investigators were not able to examine his body, which was cremated soon after he died. Rights organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders has rejected the official explanation that this occurred on the instructions of Li’s sister, and alleges that she and others have been unable to move or communicate freely. Officials, on the other hand, claim that journalists have not been able to reach them simply because they do not wish to be contacted. From Josh Chin at China Real Time Report:

The week following Mr. Li’s death, unconfirmed reports that police had cremated the body after conducting an autopsy against his family’s wishes set off a wave of outrage in Hong Kong, where the Tiananmen Square crackdown continues to be remembered with an annual candle light vigil. Thousands to took the streets in protest.

Thursday’s police report says the activist’s body had been cremated on June 9 in the presence of Mr. Li’s sister Li Wangling, and that Ms. Li herself had turned in the application requesting the cremation. […]

[…] In addition to the report, the Hong Kong China News Service also published on its website the image of a handwritten letter, purportedly signed by Li Wangling and her husband on June 9, saying that the matter of Mr. Li’s death had already been settled and that they did not wish to communicate with the outside world about it. “We don’t want to accept any interviews,” the letter reads. “We just want to emerge from this sorrow to lead normal, peaceful lives.”

Neither Ms. Li nor her husband could be reached for comment.

The case has also fuelled heated controversy surrounding Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, following accusations that new editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei suppressed the story of Li’s death.