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HONG KONG (Reuters) - A labour activist and Chinese dissident jailed after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing has been found dead in a hospital ward in central China amidst suspicious circumstances, his family and rights groups said on Wednesday.
Li Wangyang was found by his sister and brother-in-law on Wednesday apparently hanged by a bandage around his neck in his hospital room in Shaoyang city in Hunan province. Security and hospital authorities said that he had committed suicide.
His family, however, disputed this and said the circumstances surrounding his death were suspicious.
A photograph taken of the hanging corpse by the family showed the dissident's two feet planted on the ground.
"He was imprisoned for over 20 years and didn't die," his distraught sister told Hong Kong's Cable Television. "But then, the result is this."
"He is a person with a very strong will," his friend Yin Zhengan said on the same television channel. "I never felt that he wanted to kill himself."
Groups including the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in China said in a statement that security personnel may have faked a suicide after beating him.
Hong Kong-based lawmaker and activist Lee Cheuk-yan, who spoke with Li's family after the death, said Li had been constantly watched by security guards and that they could easily have prevented any suicide attempt.
"The circumstances are very suspicious," Lee said.
Li had been a labour activist in the city of Shaoyang in Hunan province, whose advocacy of labour rights during the 1989 pro-democracy protests saw him jailed for 22 years, according to the group Human Rights in China, on charges including counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement.
He was released last year and was being treated in hospital for various ailments including eye and ear conditions.
Li's death comes after the high-profile case of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, whose daring 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.
A small group of Hong Kong activists marched to the city's Beijing Liaison office on Wednesday evening, demanding an investigation into Li's death and a post mortem examination after his family were barred from examining his corpse.
Just last week, Li had said in a television interview that he'd never regretted his fight for justice.
"The June fourth incident must be officially vindicated. The souls of the martyrs deserve to finally find some peace," said Li, referring to the Tiananmen Square protests. He had been one of the last pro-democracy dissidents from 1989 to be released from prison.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Rosalind Russell