Christian Human Rights Lawyer Dies After 'Minor Stomach Pain,' Raising Suspicion He Was Murdered by Chinese Gov't

Mar 15, 2018 11:06 AM EDT

A Christian human rights lawyer in China died under suspicious circumstances after checking himself into a hospital with minor stomach pain, prompting many to suspect he was murdered by the Chinese Communist Party, whom he often opposed.

Persecution watchdog China Aid reports that Li Baiguang was declared dead by physicians in China's eastern Jiangsu province on Feb. 26 despite a previous record of clean health.

Li went to the hospital for a minor stomach ache and was declared dead hours later. The hospital alleged that he had liver problems and that he bled to death, but Li was previously healthy.

The unclear circumstances surrounding Li's death, China Aid said, indicate he was murdered by China's Communist Party, which "has a history of either neglecting the medical conditions of human rights activists until they succumb to them or declaring previously healthy people dead."

The organization references the untimely deaths of of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo,  pro-democracy activist and Christian Yang Tianshiu, and prisoner of conscience Peng Ming. Their untimely deaths, the group said, demonstrates that the Chinese government is "taking an active hand in the deaths of those who stand for liberty."

Li, who attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., with ChinaAid President Bob Fu and a delegation of Chinese human rights activists just before his death, was frequently targeted by the for his activism.

A few months ago, he was kidnapped by Chinese officials in Zhejiang province, beaten, and forced to leave the area on the threat of dismemberment for defending farmers whose land was illegally taken by the government.

In the past, Li represented numerous illegally arrested Chinese pastors and received the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for his efforts to advance human rights and religious freedom in China, notes China Aid.

Li's death sparked a national outcry, with many human rights activists calling on China to allow an honest investigation into his death.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of China's most courageous, pro-constitution lawyers," Fu, who remained a close friend and co-worker Li for more than a decade, said. "He was treated violently last year and was threatened a number of times recently by the Chinese regime. He has been a bold and compassionate human rights lawyer, always ready in defense of the persecuted and vulnerable. Like in the sudden death of [Nobel Peace Prize laureate] Dr. Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese regime should be held totally accountable. The whole world should demand that the Chinese government give a full, independent, and transparent account on what caused Dr Li's sudden death."

U.S. Representative Chris Smith, co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), released a statement regarding the case, saying, "I am deeply saddened and mourn the death of Li Baiguang. Dr. Li was a father and a husband, a lawyer and scholar, and he was a committed Christian who used his legal skills to defend the poor and oppressed in China-he will be missed. Dr. Li was truly one of China's best and brightest--committed to the rule of law, to human rights, and to a more peaceful and prosperous U.S.-China relationship."

Smith said there are "many unanswered questions about his death and these questions should be answered."

"Given that so many human rights lawyers have been disbarred, detained, disappeared, and tortured since 2015, the family should be allowed to undertake a truly independent medical investigation and get answers about Li Baiguang's untimely death," he said. "I urge the Chinese government to recognize that such an investigation is in its best interests. At this time my prayers are with his family, particularly Xu Hanmei and Li Qingxin, Dr. Li's wife and son."

As reported, Liu Xiaobo, a renowned Chinese Christian activist and Nobel Peace laureate, died a "premature death" at age 61 under guard in a hospital in July.

Liu had been serving an 11-year jail sentence for demanding an end to one-party rule when he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in May, only after the illness was virtually beyond treatment, according to The Guardian. After his cancer diagnosis, Liu was granted medical parole. However, he remained in First Hospital of China Medical University, still a captive of the Chinese government, after authorities refused his dying request to be allowed to travel abroad for treatment.

News of Liu's death sparked widespread condemnation; Marco Rubio, who earlier begged the Chinese government to allow Liu to seek treatment outside of China, called the news "beyond tragic."

"There should be an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Dr. Liu's death, his treatment in detention, the timing of the diagnosis of his late-stage liver cancer, and countless other questions that need to be answered, he said. "The Chinese authorities complicit in his unjust imprisonment and death should be immediately sanctioned and their assets frozen under the Global Magnitsky Act."