People’s Daily Online reports the arrest of two police officers over the death of Lei Yang, who died after being detained in May. Police claimed that he had bitten officers and tried to escape before suffering a heart attack, but family members say that bruises on his body suggested he was beaten. In response to public outcry over the incident, authorities promised to rein in abuse of police powers.
The ongoing investigation into the death of a 29-year-old Beijing man who was found dead in police custody has seen a new development. Authentication conducted by People’s Procuratorate of Beijing Municipality confirmed that Lei Yang died of suffocation caused by inhalation of gastric contents into the respiratory tract.
According to the Procuratorate, misconduct of involved police officers is confirmed. Xing, deputy chief of a sub-branch under Beijing Changping district police and one auxiliary police officer surnamed Zhou have been arrested for duty negligence.
[…] The Lei Yang case took place on May 7. On that night, Lei, who graduated with a master’s degree from the prestigious Renmin University, died after police raided a foot massage parlor that was alleged to be hosting prostitution. Investigations were done after Lei’s family raised doubts about the official police story, and the autopsy was started on May 13. [Source]
Lei’s family have maintained that he was on his way to pick up a relative from the airport.
Punishment for the perpetrators of abuse in custody is rare, but not unprecedented. In October 2013, six officials were sentenced to prison terms over the death of Yu Qiyi during interrogation. In this case, the investigation was likely spurred by the extent to which Lei’s death stirred unease among China’s middle class, despite repeated efforts to control the story. This came on top of episodes like last year’s explosions near Tianjin, which had already “blown apart the ‘normal country delusion’ of the Chinese middle class.” Wu Qiang explained in an essay posted at China Change earlier this month:
On May 11, an open letter of protest signed by alumni of Renmin University’s class of 1988 (the year of entrance) quickly went viral. A string of open letters by other alumni classes soon appeared online, including a joint declaration by alumni of the class 1977 and 1978.
Directly and unequivocally, these letters questioned the Chinese police’s use of violence and abuse of power, and for the first time brought into the open the collective sense of deep unease and personal insecurity felt by China’s middle class—in particular the fear that even their own basic physical safety isn’t protected. They also called for an independent, transparent investigation into Lei’s death. The alumni of the Class of ‘88 described the death of Lei Yang as “the random, willful killing of an ordinary, urban, middle-class person.”
At the end of that letter appears one of the strongest remarks of the last decade: “The death of Lei Yang is not an accident, but a structural tragedy. We ask that the highest authorities conduct an independent and fair investigation into Lei’s death; we demand that the murderers be punished and that law enforcement be rectified and disciplined. We must have the most basic, dependable safety, civil rights, and urban order. Short of this, we, who are not too old to give up on the future, will not let the issue go. We won’t tolerate evil indefinitely.” [Source]
Even now, the investigation may be something of a token gesture. Authorities were accused of letting higher-ranking culprits escape prosecution in the Yu Qiyi case, and face allegations of softening the charges in Lei’s. From Jane Perlez at The New York Times:
A lawyer for Mr. Lei’s family, Chen Youxi, said on Thursday that the family had commended the arrest of the two police officers and had thanked the prosecutors for “handling the case strictly, legally and thoroughly.”
But Mr. Chen said in a statement on Weibo that the charges were not sufficient given the circumstances of the case.
“It is obvious that the crime in the case cannot be defined as dereliction,” he said. “Lei Yang was walking normally on the street before he encountered the police, not intoxicated. Therefore it could be only external violence that led to suffocation caused by inhalation of gastric contents into the respiratory tract.”
The police officers should face heavier charges, such as forging and suppressing evidence to hinder the investigation, Mr. Chen said. [Source]
Earlier this month, an officer was filmed threatening two women in the back of his police car. Abuse in custody spills over into the pre-trial investigation process, where it has been blamed for China’s excessively high conviction rate and a series of high-profile wrongful convictions.