Death in detention

Fatality in police custody draws national attention

Death in detention

You know a police force has a credibility problem when the public sides with a man accused of visiting a prostitute on his wedding anniversary, rather than with the cops.

That was how the Sydney Morning Herald summed up the case of Lei Yang, a 29 year-old environmentalist who died in police custody on May 7 allegedly after a raid on a Beijing brothel.

Lei’s family say his body was covered with bruises and his mouth bloodied when they were finally allowed to see him – seven hours after he died.

They were not allowed to take any pictures, raising suspicions that Lei had been a victim of police brutality.

Lei was a home owner, an employee of a new environmental organisation affiliated to the government, and the holder of two degrees from Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University. He had also just become a father.

His death was particularly shocking to China’s middle classes. This is the group that is generally willing to support the ruling Communist Party as long as it continues to deliver a better life. But when the government fails to uphold its side of the bargain – such as when air pollution starts to become particularly hazardous, for instance – that pact can show signs of fraying.

One of four open letters written by alumni of Renmin University and posted to the internet after Lei’s death complained: “We keenly feel today that 30 years after the opening-up reforms, our personal safety and basic rights are not protected”.

“The relationship between public security and citizens of this country is abnormal,” it added.

According to local media reports events occurred thus: shortly before 9pm Lei left his home in the satellite town of Changping on a trip to collect a relative from Beijing airport. At 9.14pm the police say they spotted him emerging from a brothel a short distance from his house.

Three plain clothes policemen approached him and attempted to detain him. A fight ensued and Lei allegedly bit one of the officers.

Lei was put in the police car but as he was being taken to the station he made another attempt to escape, jumping out of the vehicle, according to the Changping police weibo account. He was recaptured and thrown back into the car. Shortly after setting off he complained of discomfort. “Sensing this was an unusual situation, the officers took him to the nearest hospital,” the weibo statement said.

Lei arrived at the Changping Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine at 10.05pm and was pronounced dead on arrival, according to a doctor interviewed by CCTV, the state broadcaster.

At 1am – when a policeman answered a call from Lei’s wife, Wu Wenwen, on Lei’s mobile phone – his family finally discovered he was dead. It was not until 5am that she got to see her husband’s body.

The police said there was no footage of Lei’s arrest because the four cameras outside the brothel were broken and Lei had smashed a phone which the police officer had been recording him on. “I don’t care whether he solicited a prostitute or not, I just want to know if he was killed,” Beijing News quoted Lei’s wife as saying.

The police have been under pressure to crack down on prostitution in recent months as part of the government’s wider campaign against porn and vulgarity.

“Lei Yang’s is not an accident, but a systemic tragedy,” said the Renmin alumni group’s online letter. “Even if he has some moral flaw, the sin was not big enough to warrant killing him… We won’t endure this evil forever,” it said ominously (the letter has now been taken down).

Beijing’s authorities have been taken aback by the storm that Lei’s death has caused. In a move to pacify some of the critics, the local government has promised to release the results of the autopsy – though it says that it may take a month for the results to be published.

Cases of police brutality have been reported in many other countries, including the US where the rise of the smartphone has captured instances on camera. But netizens in China feel that too much is being left unsaid in Lei’s case, leading many to believe the worst of the police.

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