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China: Veteran human rights defender Mr Li Wangyang found dead in hospital
On 6 June 2012 labour rights activist Mr Li Wangyang was found dead in a hospital in Shaoyang City, Hunan province. Li Wangyang had spent more that 22 years in prison since being jailed for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
The cause of his death has not been confirmed. Although local police indicated that they believe that Li Wangyang hanged himself, his family and supporters have expressed doubt that suicide was the cause of his death.
At around 6am on 6 June, Li Wangyang's brother in-law, Mr Zhao Baozhu, received a telephone call from Daxiang Hospital, Shaoyang City to inform him that Li Wangyang had died. Zhao Baozhu reportedly arrived at the hospital at approximately 6.50am to find Li Wangyang hanging from a window in his room, with his feet touching the ground. By 10am his body had been removed by the police without the approval of his family. Zhao Baozhu told reporters that he had been with Li Wangyang the previous night and he “did not show any signs of suicide”. That same night Li Wangyang also reportedly asked that his sister bring him a radio so he could attempt to improve his failing hearing. Zhao Baozhu questioned how Li Wangyang, who was in very poor health and had difficulty walking, would be able to hang himself. In the days leading up to his death, Li Wangyang met supporters who affirmed that he was in good spirits.
Li Wangyang began his labour activism in 1983 when he founded the Shaoyang City Workers' Mutual Aid Society. He was an early advocate for independent labour unions and during the 1989 demonstrations, he started the Shaoyang Autonomous Workers Union. Li Wangyang was detained on 9 June and on 25 October 1989 he was found guilty of “counterrevolutionary propaganda” and “incitement”. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail and a further four years deprivation of political rights. During his time in prison, Li Wangyang was severely beaten by prison guards. By the time he was released in June 2000, having served 11 years of his 13 year sentence, his health had deteriorated greatly and he was unable to walk unassisted. He had also developed heart disease, as well as severe problems with his hearing and vision.
On his release from prison, Li Wangyang petitioned the Shaoyang City government to pay for the medical treatment which he needed as a result of beating and torture he suffered in jail. When the local government agreed to pay only 2,000 yuan in medical expenses, Li Wangyang began a hunger strike in an attempt to draw attention to his plight and to exert greater pressure on the government. Although he stopped his hunger strike after 22 days, he continued to petition the government to pay for his medical treatment, and on 6 May 2001 he was detained on charges of inciting subversion of state power. In September 2001 he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was released on 5 May 2011. While in hospital after his release Li Wangyang was reportedly subjected to 24 hour surveillance.
Given the doubts raised by Li Wangyang's family surrounding his death and his previous treatment at the hand of the authorities, Front Line Defenders is calling for an independent investigation into his death.