China drops charges against police in case of man's death in custody

Lei Yang

Beijing prosecutors have decided not to press charges against five law enforcement officers suspected of negligence in a case in which a man choked to death after being taken into custody, saying the severity of their actions was minor and all have shown remorse.

Six months earlier, the Beijing Municipal People's Procuratorate, which is responsible for both investigation and prosecution in China's legal system, had declared that police acted "improperly" during the detention of Lei Yang, a Beijing-based environmentalist, and arrested two officers on charges of negligence.

Lei’s death sparked a public outcry earlier this year when Lei's wife cast doubt on the results of a police investigation into her husband's death, with hundreds of comments on social media lambasting the lack of oversight and transparency in Chinese law enforcement.

Prosecutors said in June that an autopsy showed that Lei suffocated on his vomit while in a police vehicle rather than dying from a heart attack, as noted in the police report.

Friday’s statement said that prosecutors found that the five officers contributed to Lei's death by failing to perform emergency lifesaving procedures, including taking the man to a hospital after finding him unresponsive. They were also found to have deliberately made up facts and obstruct the investigation during the ensuing inquiry, the procuratorate said.

In the statement, the prosecutors described a number of abusive behaviors, including officers "using knees to press face and neck, and slapping on the face".

Lei tried to escape for a second time after he was placed in a police vehicle. In apprehending him the second time, the officers "used their feet to step on Lei's face and neck, and used their legs to hold down his arm". Lei was then dragged back to the police vehicle by the handcuffs he was wearing.

The Beijing police said in a statement later on Friday that the five officers will be punished in accordance with regulations.

However, given that the officers' activities were part of a planned law enforcement campaign, and that Lei had interfered with law enforcement, the prosecutors decided not to press any charges.

The prosecutors said they determined that Lei had solicited prostitution at a foot massage salon before his encounter with the officers.

Lei's friends and commentators have questioned why the struggle was not filmed — the officers said all their video recording devices were broken — and why it took so long for medical help to arrive after Lei fell unconscious. Lei's family also said his head was covered with bruises.

The prosecutors said they don't believe Lei was beaten to death by the police officers, as none of the bruises on his body were fatal.

Lei was found by an independent autopsy to have choked to death on his vomit, which the prosecutors said “has a close relationship with the death.”

“The misconduct by the police officers had a direct causal relationship with Lei's death, which is a serious result," it said, adding that "Lei's intensive and persistent resistance when he had a full stomach also has a close relationship with the death".”

The state-owned Global Times published an opinion on Friday saying that while the case has consumed much social attention, it will also push police officers to carry out their duties strictly according to the law.

“Lei's case has touched upon too many social dimensions, and through this case people should recalibrate how to seek out the truth,” it said.

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