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A new father’s mysterious death in police custody sparks outrage in China

Reuters/Damir Sagolj
No escape.
By Zheping Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The mysterious death of a 29-year-old man in Beijing, after plainclothes police detained him on suspicion of visiting prostitutes, sparked public outrage in China this week. Chinese citizens, as well as state-run media, are demanding answers about his death.

On Saturday (May 7), Lei Yang, the father of a newborn baby, left his Beijing home to pick up a relative at the airport. On his way, he was detained by police in front of a foot massage parlor, and then died in custody shortly afterwards, according to numerous media reports.

Police claim Lei was arrested for soliciting prostitutes at the massage parlor, which is actually a brothel. He tired to escape twice but was forcefully controlled, Changping police said on Sina Weibo, and suddenly fell ill. The police say they immediately sent him to the hospital, where he was declared dead.

But the details of his death, which Caixin rounded up (link in Chinese), don’t match that narrative: Lei’s family saw bruises on his body, and found the surveillance cameras at the scene of his arrest broken. Police said they recorded the arrest on a mobile phone, but that it was broken in the chaos, and they will only make the video public at an appropriate time. While police claimed they only put handcuffs on Lei after he tried to escape, a witness told Caixin the opposite.

On Monday, five employees from the foot massage parlor were arrested. One woman confessed Wednesday on a local broadcast (video in Chinese) that Lei paid her for a sex act. Earlier the police told state newspaper People’s Daily (link in Chinese) that Lei paid 200 yuan for prostitution and a condom with his DNA was found at the scene.

Lei graduated from the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing, and worked as an environmentalist at a government agency. His alumni from the university have posted petitions on social media demanding answers.

Chinese citizens have questioned police actions in the past. In May 2015, a police shooting killed an unarmed villager at a train station in northeastern Heilongjiang province.

In recent years, local police officials have tried to cover up brutality with ridiculous explanations for why people in custody have died—from “playing hide-and-seek,” to drinking boiled water, to “having a nightmare.” In response to the outcry, discussions of Lei’s death and news reports about it are being censored online.

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