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FILE – A protester holds a picture of imprisoned and prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang during a protest outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on July 13, 2018.

A prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who had been jailed for 4 ½  years for subversion was released Sunday, but his wife and rights groups fear the authorities are using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to continue holding him under de facto house arrest.

Wang Quanzhang, a lawyer who had defended political activists and members of the banned Falun Gong sect, was barred from reuniting with his wife and son in Beijing amid the coronavirus pandemic, his wife, Li Wenzu, said. Instead, authorities have taken him to his hometown, Jinan, in the eastern province of Shandong, 400 km south of Beijing, for a compulsory period of quarantine of 14 days, she said.

Li, who has been frequently harassed and followed by the authorities throughout Wang’s incarceration, worries that officials will hold him under effective house arrest for a long period, as they have with other dissident lawyers and activists over the years.

In recent months, Chinese authorities have also have been using compulsory quarantine as a pretext to restrict the movements of government critics.

Wang called his wife Saturday, telling her not to meet him at the prison.  In a recording she posted on Twitter, Wang said he wouldn’t see her in Beijing but had to be quarantined “for some time” due to the pandemic.  He said, “We’ll be back together, but there’ll be a process.”

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2019, file photo, protesters demonstrate in support of prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Wang…
FILE – In this Jan. 29, 2019, file photo, protesters demonstrate in support of prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, right on poster, outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong.

“I can’t see him, and I’m really worried about his health, especially in the middle of the pandemic. During this time, he should be looked after by us,” she said.

“I worry that the government is using the pandemic as an excuse to continue holding him,” she said, adding that she could not trust the authorities to keep to their promise of 14 days of quarantine.

“I’m absolutely opposed to this [arrangement] and am very angry,” she said. “I’ll continue to fight until he comes back.”

Michael Caster, a rights activist who worked with Wang at the NGO China Action before it was closed by the Chinese government in 2016, said, “There is nothing in their history of abuse that should make us believe Wang and his family’s suffering will end there.

“Today, he is still a prisoner and we must continue to demand his freedom,” Caster said.

FILE : Li Wenzu, wife of detained Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, is followed by friends and media near a Supreme People’s Court complaints office in Beijing, China April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo – RC18528DC500

Chinese rights activists are often released from prison into de facto house arrest or enforced restriction to their villages, where they are obliged to remain for a number of years, leading New York University School of Law China expert Jerome Cohen to dub the practice “non-release release.”

“In the past decade, ‘non-release release’ has been customized to suit the [Communist] Party’s needs for effectively suppressing human rights lawyers on a more individualized basis than a formal system might allow, and also for a longer time than formal criminal or administrative sanctions might seem suitable,” Cohen said on his blog.

“What will Wang Quanzhang’s ‘release’ on April 5 amount to?” asked Cohen.

Rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was officially released from jail in February 2019, was taken by security police first to an unknown location and later to his home village in rural Henan province, where he has remained under 24-hour police surveillance and been barred from returning to Beijing to practice law.

Detained in August 2015, Wang was sentenced to jail in January 2019 on the blanket charge of “subversion of state power.” The court also stripped him of his political rights for five years, which often translates into being put under house arrest and having one’s movements restricted.  His wife was barred from visiting him during his 3 ½ year detention before his conviction — she was able to visit him for the first time in four years last June. The authorities frequently harassed and intimidated her and barred their young son from going to school.

Wang was one of more than 300 lawyers and activists detained in a wave of crackdown on rights lawyers which started in July 2015.  He was the last lawyer of the group to be convicted.