China human rights lawyer released after five years in jail

Wang Quanzhang was arrested in 2015 in a sweeping crackdown on more than 200 lawyers and government critics.

    Li Wenzu, the wife of prominent Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, holds a box with a family picture and the detention notice for her husband in Beijing [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]
    Li Wenzu, the wife of prominent Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, holds a box with a family picture and the detention notice for her husband in Beijing [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

    A leading Chinese human rights lawyer has been released from prison after almost five years behind bars, his wife said on Sunday.

    Wang Quanzhang, 44, was first arrested in 2015 in a sweeping crackdown on more than 200 lawyers and government critics in China as President Xi Jinping tightened his grip on power. 

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    But Wang has yet to return home to his family in the Chinese capital and was instead escorted on Sunday to a property he owns in eastern Shandong province for 14 days in quarantine as a precaution against the coronavirus, according to wife Li Wenzu.

    Li told AFP news agency from Beijing, where she lives with the couple's young son, that she feared Wang would be placed under house arrest despite his release from prison, and would be subject to surveillance.

    "I think [authorities] have been lying to us step by step," Li said.

    "They used the pretext of the epidemic as an excuse to quarantine him for 14 days when he should have been able to return to his home in Beijing according to the relevant legal guidelines."

    Calls to the prison went unanswered on Sunday and Shandong's justice department did not respond to enquiries from AFP.

    '709' crackdown

    Wang's initial detention in 2015 came as part of the so-called "709" crackdown, nicknamed as such because it began on July 9 that year.

    But it was not until January 2019 that he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for "subverting state power" in a closed-door trial.

    A prominent lawyer who has defended political activists and victims of land seizures, Wang was held incommunicado prior to the trial.

    He worked for the now-closed law firm Fengrui, which has represented clients such as the artist Ai Weiwei.

    The lawyer was repeatedly involved in politically charged cases which centred on religious freedom, press freedom and forced displacement.

    Zhou Shifeng, the founder of the firm, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

    "I am really worried they plan on putting him under long-term house arrest and will prevent us from being reunited as a family," said Li, who had tirelessly campaigned for her husband's release.

    Police had forcibly evicted tenants from Wang's property in the city of Jinan to make way for his return to Shandong, his wife added.

    Li said she believed his stay there was not out of choice.

    "His speech is being restricted. He phoned me yesterday saying he would go to Jinan," she said.

    "Is this what a rational person would do after being separated from their wife and child for almost five years?"

    Li's first trip to see her husband since his arrest in 2015 came in June last year when she was granted a prison visit after repeated denials, she said.

    "My husband's health has deteriorated during the long incarceration, he has lost so much weight," Li told AFP at the time.

    Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since Xi took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and arresting hundreds of activists and lawyers.

    SOURCE: AFP news agency