HONG KONG—Villagers in the central Chinese province of Henan clashed with police and government officials following the death in police custody of their elected leader.
Shi Baoqing, the head of Xiguanmao village, died Dec. 1 after being summoned to answer questions at nearby Fudian Township police station on a visit to hire an opera troupe for harvest festivities, his widow and deputy told RFA's Mandarin service.
Police and local officials said Shi had jumped from a building, committing suicide because of a mental conflict. But villagers who saw the body said it was covered in injuries inconsistent with a fall from a great height.
"I suspect he was tortured for a forced confession. I think they beat him up," Shi's widow Jiao Lunxiao told RFA's Investigative Report. "Maybe so badly that he jumped from the building, or maybe they beat him to death and then threw him off."
Jiao said too many suspicious circumstances surrounded her husband's death, which is currently under investigation by the People's Procuratorate, or state prosecutor, in Luoyang City.
According to the official version of events, Shi jumped from the building at 3:18 p.m. and was taken for emergency medical treatment in hope of saving him. But a whole hour elapsed between his alleged suicide and his next of kin being informed, Jiao said.
"Why was there no-one with him when he jumped? If he jumped as they say at 3:18 p.m., and they took him to the emergency room to try to revive him for one hour, why didn't they inform the family during that time?" she said.
Shi's naked body was found by villagers dumped at the main entrance of the local crematorium, deputy village chief Dong Hongjun said.
If, as they say, he really had a mental conflict, why were so many officials sent to deal with the matter?
"It didn't look like someone who had jumped from a building. When we saw the body, it was black and blue and bloody all over," Dong said. "Also, he wasn't in really big trouble at the time he went to the police station. He was in a good mood, so I don't think he would have committed suicide."
Shi's widow said she saw burn marks she believed had been caused by electric batons on his arms, and that he was battered and bruised all over.
Dong said Shi had been called in for questioning over allegations that he embezzled around 60,000 yuan (U.S. $7,255) from village accounts. "None of the villagers believed that story," he said, adding that even if it had been true, it wasn't a large enough amount to land Shi in serious trouble.
The injuries on Shi's body, along with his nakedness, led villagers out in their dozens to view the body and demand an explanation from township officials. More than 100 people collected outside government offices but received no substantive response from officials.
When they picked up Shi's body to take it for an autopsy and demanded an investigation, police and township officials blocked their way. But they charged back to village government headquarters in the end, carrying Shi's body triumphantly on their shoulders, Dong said.
"There were more of us than them," he said.
An officer who answered the phone at the Fudian police station said his station chief Zhang Xiangyang was unavailable to take calls.
"Shi Baoqing was taken to the procuratorate and they are dealing with this issue now. We will wait for the prosecutors' investigation and what they conclude will be the official conclusion," he told RFA.
It didn't look like someone who had jumped from a building. When we saw the body, it was black and blue and bloody all over.
Jiao rejected the official response to her husband's case. "The government is involved in this somehow. They are hiding something," she said.
"If, as they say, he really had a mental conflict, why were so many officials sent to deal with the matter? Dozens of vehicles were sent over to the village to block the way out until the body was sent to the prosecutor's office in Luoyang. Then they withdrew the vehicles and their people," she said.
Dong said the villagers would pursue the subsequent investigation by the authorities.
"We are simply looking for justice, to clear the good name of our village chief, and punish the perpetrators," he said, adding that Shi was remembered as a kind-hearted man and an altruistic leader who had played a large part in attracting investment to the area.
Heads of village-level government are directly elected by villagers in China, in a grassroots-level attempt to weed out official corruption that experts say has had little impact.