BEIJING – China freed human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang from prison on Sunday after he had spent nearly five years behind bars for “subversion of state power,” a charge often used by the Chinese government against activists and dissidents.
Wang’s wife Li Wenzu tweeted that she had received a call from her husband early on Sunday informing her that he had been released at 5:00 am.
The lawyer was taken by the police to a house he owned in Jinan, in the eastern Shandong province, with the tenant being displaced to make arrangements for Wang.
It was not immediately clear for how long the authorities meant to keep the activist in Jinan and if he would be quarantined there.
Human rights groups have voiced fears that the government could continue to monitor Wang’s activities and prevent him from returning to his family.
Doriane Lau, Amnesty International’s China researcher, said in a statement: “There are reasons to fear that Wang Quanzhang’s release from prison offers merely the illusion of freedom.
“The Chinese government has a history of monitoring and controlling human rights defenders even after they’re released from jail.”
The European Union welcomed the activist’s release as a “positive development” and urged China to allow him freedom of movement and residence.
Virginie Battu Henriksson, EU foreign affairs spokeswoman, said in a statement: “The EU expects that Mr. Wang’s release will be unconditional.”
She added that reports of his mistreatment and torture in prison must be investigated.
Earlier this week, another nonprofit International Service for Human Rights had expressed concerns that the lawyer’s impending release would not be unconditional.
“If Wang is freed, his family expects him to be forcibly removed to his hometown, far from support networks and diplomats in Beijing, and to face serious restrictions to his personal liberties, including freedom of movement,” ISHR said in a statement.
The NGO had said that Wang could be taken to Jinan even though he had lived and worked in Beijing before his arrest.
Wang’s wife had told ISHR that she wanted the lawyer to be returned to Beijing and stay with her and their son.
“I am worried that he might encounter similar treatment to lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who is still being watched by state agents around the clock,” she said, referring to another human rights lawyer who was freed in February 2019 after being imprisoned on similar charges.
Jiang has been under a de-facto house arrest at his parents home since his release.
Wang was arrested in August 2015 during a government crackdown against law firms specializing in human rights cases, which led to the detention of around 250 lawyers and activists.
He had defended groups persecuted by Chinese authorities for years, including members of the spiritual group Falun Gong (banned in China since 1999), dissidents and activists.
After his arrest, the lawyer’s family had no information of his whereabouts until July 2018 when another lawyer revealed that he was being kept in under custody in the northern Tianjin province.
In January 2019, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
Li previously said that when she met Wang in 2019 after a gap of four years, he had become thinner and suffered from memory loss, anxiety and fear and that she noticed on subsequent visits that he had fewer teeth.
ISHR said that the progressive deterioration of Wang’s health could be due to torture during his imprisonment.