REUTERS - Online petitioners stepped up pressure on China on Thursday to investigate the death in hospital of a labour activist after spending more than 22 years in jail for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing.
Li Wangyang, who was only released from prison last year, was found dead in a hospital ward in Shaoyang city in Hunan province on Wednesday, his neck tied with a noose made from cotton bandages. Authorities said it was suicide.
He was being treated for deteriorating health, but details were not available. The group Human Rights in China said Li lost his sight and hearing as a result of torture during his years behind bars.
"We saw that his body was still hanging by the window, and his two feet were clearly still standing on the ground. But they (hospital staff) did not let us get near him ... Then they dragged his body away," Zhao Baozhu, Li's brother-in-law, was quoted as saying by Human Rights in China.
As of Thursday afternoon, 2,700 people had signed an online petition, including prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, scholars, lawyers and writers who called for an authorized forensic investigation.
Li had been one of the first Chinese activists to push for independent labour unions in China, but was punished after the June 4, 1989, crackdown for his participation in the pro-democracy movement.
Li's death comes after the high-profile case of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from village confinement and subsequent flight to freedom in the United States became a diplomatic flashpoint and raised global awareness of China's poor human rights record.
The Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy said a number of rights activists, lawyers and citizens had arrived in Shaoyang to assist the family in its bid for justice, but many were unreachable and had probably been detained by authorities.
"It's very difficult to accept the official explanation of events," said Wen Yunchao, a prominent Chinese blogger and journalist now based in Hong Kong who helped initiate the online petition.
Several dozen activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong protested outside Beijing's liaison office, carrying white flowers.
Just last week, Li had said in a television interview that he'd never regretted his fight for justice.
"The souls of the martyrs deserve to finally find some peace," said Li, referring to the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent crackdown in which hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.
Reporting by James Pomfret and Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by Nick Macfie