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Hong Kong official questions whether Chinese activist killed himself

By the CNN Wire Staff
June 12, 2012 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
Chinese dissident Li Wangyang was found hanging in his hospital room.
Chinese dissident Li Wangyang was found hanging in his hospital room.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Li Wangyang, a labor rights activist, was found hanged in his hospital room
  • Protesters in Hong Kong have called for an investigation
  • Friends say the official claim that he hanged himself is "ridiculous"

Hong Kong (CNN) -- A Hong Kong government minister on Tuesday joined a growing chorus of people questioning the circumstances of the death last week of a prominent Chinese dissident who was found hanged in his hospital room.

Dr. York Chow, the Hong Kong secretary for food and health, said in an interview with CNN affiliate i-CABLE News that the weak physical condition of Li Wangyang, a blind and deaf labor rights activist, made it hard to believe the hospital authorities' claim that he had committed suicide.

Chow also cited an interview that Li gave to i-CABLE a few weeks before his death in which he expressed his commitment to promoting democracy in China.

"It seems that his character and personality are not of a person who is suicidal and are not of a person who would not have left a suicide note," Chow said.

He urged other officials to convey the feelings of Hong Kong citizens about Li's death to the Chinese government in Beijing.

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Chow has said he will finish his term as health secretary in Hong Kong when the territory's new Beijing-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, takes over next month.

Friends of Li have criticized official claims that he hanged himself at the hospital Shaoyang, Hunan Province, as "insulting" and "ridiculous." They insist he was too weak to hang himself and was committed to continuing his activism.

One friend, Huang Lihong, said last week that he had visited Li Wangyang at Daxiang District Hospital in Shaoyang a few days before his death on June 6 and found him in "good spirits."

Li was blind, deaf and had trouble walking after spending more than 20 years in prison following the crackdown by the Chinese authorities on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

He was one of China's first labor rights activists and was jailed shortly after the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen for urging workers to strike, according to Human Rights in China (HRIC), a nongovernmental organization.

After spending 11 years in jail, Li was released in 2000 only to be imprisoned again in 2001 for doggedly petitioning Shaoyang authorities to pay his medical expenses for injuries suffered through torture in prison.

They refused and he was sentenced to a further 10 years for "incitement to subvert state power," according to HRIC. He was released last year but his family said he had been under 24-hour police surveillance in hospital.

Li's brother-in-law Zhao Baozhu told HRIC that hospital staff phoned him and his wife, Li's sister Li Wangling, just after 6 a.m. on June 6 to tell them that Li had committed suicide.

Zhao said they rushed to the hospital and found Li's body "hanging by the window." He noted that Li's feet were still on the ground.

"I've never witnessed a suicide like this,"said Mi Ling Tsui, communications director at HRIC. "It raises questions. How do you hang yourself with your feet on the ground?"

Despite the family's claims that they weren't allowed to take photos of Li's body, three images of him said to have been taken after his death have been published on Boxun, a U.S.-based Chinese-language news website.

Two photos show Li standing by a window with a knotted sheet around his neck, apparently tied to bars on a window above. A third photo shows Li's feet firmly on the ground, still wearing slippers.

CNN tried repeatedly to contact Daxiang District Hospital where Li died but no one answered the phone. An official who answered the phone at the publicity office of Shaoyang Public Security Station said he hadn't heard of Li's case and advised calling another number. Attempts to contact other government offices were also unsuccessful.

It's not known how long Li had been in hospital before his death. HRIC said only that he was being treated for his "deteriorating health." Zhao told HRIC that the authorities started monitoring Li on May 22.

In the hours after Li's death, a petition appeared online urging his "suicide" to be investigated by authorities outside Shaoyang province and for the findings to be made public. It was started by Hong Kong-based journalist Bei Feng, Chinese economist Xia Yeliang and literary scholar Wu Renhua.

Thousands of people have added their names to the petition, including many who listed their locations China.

A memorial service for Li will be held Wednesday evening in central Hong Kong to mark the seventh day after his death. It will include a silent tribute as well as a pro-democracy song.

Protesters demanding an investigation into his death already carried out a demonstration in the city on Sunday.

CNN's Licia Yee, Anjali Tsui, Hilary Whiteman and Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.

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