Outcry over death in Beijing police custody

Police claim environmentalist in anti-vice raid had heart attack

Mr Lei's wife, who gave birth to the couple's first child last month, speaking to the media in an undated photo.
Mr Lei's wife, who gave birth to the couple's first child last month, speaking to the media in an undated photo.PHOTO: PEOPLE'S DAILY/TWITTER

BEIJING • The death of a well-educated environmentalist after plain-clothes officers detained him outside a Beijing foot massage parlour last Saturday is rattling nerves in China and causing its growing middle class to wonder: How safe are we from our own police?

A deluge of articles, online comments and petitions for justice suggests that many suspect unjustified police violence was at fault in the death of Mr Lei Yang, 29.

According to Chinese news media, he had a master's degree in environmental science from the prestigious Renmin University and worked for the China Association of Circular Economy, an environmental organisation affiliated with the government.

Mix in speculation about what Mr Lei, whose wife gave birth to their first child last month, was doing at the time - "foot massage parlour" is a common euphemism for a brothel - and his death has attracted huge attention.

One comment on China's Weibo microblog summed up many people's views that the police had acted improperly.

A user identified as Shazi Laoqi wrote: "Lei Yang is dead. I don't care what his job was, or what his political views were... I just care that he's dead, and that he died while being detained.

"And all the things that are supposed to aid police during the process of detention were missing - they didn't bring their recording equipment, mobile phones that recorded it were damaged, closed-circuit cameras in the area were all broken."

On Wednesday, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, appeared to push back by publishing a rare, detailed interview with the police officer in charge of what the police said was an anti-prostitution raid in Changping, a northern district of Beijing, where Mr Lei was reportedly picked up shortly after 9pm.

The police had not used excessive force during the arrest, Mr Xing Yongrui, the police officer in charge of the case, told People's Daily.

Mr Xing told the newspaper that Mr Lei had paid 200 yuan (S$42) for sex, and that after he was detained, he had bitten officers and tried to escape twice.

Mr Xing said that it took five officers 20 minutes to subdue Mr Lei with their bare hands.

The police said Mr Lei had a heart attack while in custody and was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead, according to multiple reports in the news media.

Family members said they saw bruises on his arms and head, Xinhua news agency reported.

It quoted the police as saying this was a result of him hitting his head on the ground after trying to escape from a police car.

The case has overtones of a scandal in 2003, when Mr Sun Zhigang, a college graduate who had arrived in Guangzhou for a job, was beaten to death in police custody after being detained for not having a valid residence card.

Demands for answers as to how Mr Lei died continued to mount on Thursday, with four strongly worded petitions, said to be from different groups of alumni from Renmin University, circulating on social media. However, some links were deleted by censors.

Mr Lei's family has requested an independent autopsy. The results will take about a month, news reports said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Outcry over death in Beijing police custody'. Subscribe