The Chinese government must cooperate with investigation into the suspicious death of activist Guo Hongwei

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The Chinese government must cooperate with investigation into the suspicious death of activist Guo Hongwei

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, April 20) Chinese authorities must cooperate with an investigation into the death of activist Guo Hongwei (郭洪伟) and prevent the destruction of any evidence related to his death in custody. Authorities should ensure an adequate autopsy takes place, conducted by an impartial and independent forensic pathologist chosen by his family. Authorities must cooperate with lawyers who are conducting an investigation into his death, and make available eye-witness testimonies, medical records and forensic evidence.

Guo Hongwei

Guo Hongwei, who spoke out on rights abuses and repeatedly filed complaints about official corruption, was serving a 13-year prison sentence when he died on April 9, 2021 at the Guowen Hospital in Jilin province. His father, Guo Yinqi, told media that he had doubts about the circumstances of his death. Prison guards from Gongzhuling prison would not allow the father to take pictures at the funeral and have refused to answer the family’s questions about the cause of death. Guo Hongwei was apparently transferred to Gongzhuling Prison from the Songyuan Ningjiang Prison after his father went public with allegations of his son’s torture by prison guards at the Songyuan prison last year. When Guo was admitted to the hospital, he had apparently been in a coma for over two months. His family had previously complained that his dangerously high blood pressure, which had gone untreated in prison, and that authorities had refused requests for medical parole.

Currently, human rights lawyers Xie Yanyi and Ma Wei have been retained by the family to investigate the circumstances of Guo’s death. Xie wrote a post outlining the lawyers’ recent visit to meet Guo’s family and their experience meeting with government officials in an attempt to gather information related to Guo’s death.

According to Xie Yanyi’s preliminary findings, Guo was admitted to the hospital on April 4 at 9pm due to “losing consciousness for two-and-a-half hours and frequent vomiting.” Guo underwent two surgeries on his cranium on April 5 at 12:50am and April 5 at 7:50pm. Guo was pronounced dead on April 9 at 10:59am.

Thus far, authorities have been uncooperative in providing further evidence about the circumstance of Guo Hongwei’s death:

  • Gongzhuling prison officials have refused to provide surveillance video from the day Guo was sent to the hospital (April 4) and Guo’s medical files.
  • Gongzhuling prison authorities have also refused to provide copies of the previous three months of video surveillance footage, Guo’s health examination records upon entering the prison, and any records of the prison’s investigation into Guo’s death. They have stated that such materials would reveal prison security measures, and that upper-level permission was needed for their disclosure.
  • The lawyers tried to obtain copies of Guo’s CT scans, but were unable to do so.
  • Attempts to talk to leaders at both the Jilin Province Prison Bureau and the Changchun City Chengjiao Procuratorate were unsuccessful, with each bureau referring the lawyers to other government departments.  

Guo Hongwei’s death follows a similar pattern of detainees and prisoners of conscience being tortured to death while in custody in China, where the accused officials who have engaged in torture and officials responsible for the deaths have largely enjoyed total impunity. In most of these cases, the victims have been human rights activists, dissidents, or from certain religious or ethnic minorities. In two cases in Liaoning Province, after two activists died under suspicious circumstances in detention in October 2018 and January 2019, authorities reportedly responded by covering up the deaths, blocking information, intimidating family members, and refusing to investigate or prosecute the accused perpetrators.

Similar state-sanctioned impunity for deaths in custody occurred following the deaths of activist Ji Sizun (纪斯尊) in July 2019, Uyghur scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim in 2018, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) and dissident writer Yang Tongyan (杨同彦) in 2017, democracy activist Peng Ming (彭明) in 2016, Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in 2015, and activist Cao Shunli (曹顺利) in 2014.

Guo Hongwei’s death in custody also comes at a time when human rights defenders are suffering from medical conditions that routinely go untreated while in detention.

A few notable cases of other human rights defenders suffering severe, if not potentially life-threatening, medical ailments while in custody:

  • Former website editor, head of the NGO “64Tianwang,” Huang Qi suffers from severe kidney disease, fluid in his brain (hydrocephalus), and heart and lung issues.
  • Human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng has largely lost the ability to use his right hand, being unable to use it to write, hold chopsticks, or brush his teeth. His hand also shakes, a condition that is exacerbated when it is cold inside the prison.
  • Detained women’s rights activist Li Qiaochu has apparently gained 6kg due to an endocrine imbalance issue, her lawyer has learned. Li was diagnosed with depression two years ago and needs long-term medication. As she remains detained incommunicado, it is unclear whether these medical conditions are being adequately addressed.
  • Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who was detained after reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic situation in Wuhan, is on a hunger strike to protest her ill-treatment. Her health is fragile and she has suffered from headaches, dizziness, stomach pain, and pain in the mouth and throat due to forced feeding through a tube. Her family has not been allowed to see her recently.

Under international law, the state’s obligation to respect the right to life also entails the obligation to conduct a prompt and independent official investigation when a person dies in custody. Under international standards, an inquiry into the cause of death should be carried out voluntarily by the state or if it is insisted upon by family members of the deceased (see Principle 34 of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment).  Chinese law also states that if family members suspect the prison’s medical appraisal of the cause of death, they can raise concerns with the people’s procuratorate. If a prisoner has died in an “abnormal death”, the people’s procuratorate should conduct an investigation (see Article 55 of the Prison Law).

CHRD calls on the Chinese government to immediately provide adequate medical care to all prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, and release them on humanitarian basis for medical treatment to prevent more deaths in custody.

In the case of Guo Hongwei, CHRD calls on the Chinese authorities to ensure no evidence is destroyed, to allow an independent and impartial expert of the family’s choosing to conduct another autopsy and to conduct a prompt, thorough, and effective investigation into the suspicious death in custody. CHRD further calls on authorities to ensure that those responsible for any torture or other ill-treatment, if such behavior is found, are prosecuted. The family should receive access to all autopsy reports as well as information and results regarding the progress of the investigation.

Contact for more information:

Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012 reneexia[at] Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator (English, Mandarin)  +1-623-295-9604, william[at]  Follow on Twitter: @williamnee

Ramona Li, Senior Researcher and Advocate (English, Mandarin) +1-202-556-0667, ramonali[at] Follow on Twitter: @RamonaLiCHRD

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