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Human rights in China

Prominent Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong released from prison

Campaigner walks free after four years on same day a memorial service is held for fellow activist Liu Xiaobo

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2017, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 2:11am

Xu Zhiyong, one of China’s most prominent rights activists, was released from prison on Saturday morning, according to the Beijing Municipal Administration of Prisons, after serving a four-year sentence that prompted international criticism.

His lawyer Zhang Qingfang said he hoped Xu would be allowed to live as a free man. Zhang told Reuters he had brought Xu up to speed with “events on the outside”, including the death of fellow activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo. He said Xu was “upset” on hearing the news.

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Xu’s release coincided with a memorial and cremation service held for Liu, who died of multiple organ failure at the age of 61 on Thursday. He had been serving an 11-year prison sentence, but was released on medical parole in May to be treated for liver cancer.

Xu, whose “New Citizens’ Movement” advocated working within the system to press for change, was detained in 2013 and subsequently convicted of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”.

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One of the group’s main demands had been for officials to publicly disclose their assets, a demand taken against the backdrop of the ruling Communist Party’s own efforts to crack down on deep-seated corruption under President Xi Jinping.

Zhang said that Xu, who had been incarcerated on the outskirts of Beijing, was in good physical shape and had few immediate plans beyond spending time with his family.

At the height of his activism, Xu attracted hundreds of supporters who participated in activities related to the movement. He first gained prominence in 2003 after helping victims of tainted baby formula and migrant workers without access to health care and education.

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It prompted a crackdown from the Communist Party, which swiftly crushes any perceived challenges to its rule.

“The idea of the New Citizens Movement is not to overthrow, but to establish,” Xu wrote in a 2010 essay. “It’s not one social class displacing another social class, but allowing righteousness to take its place in China.”

Xu refused to defend himself at his trial in 2104, and remained silent as a way to protest what Zhang said was a controlled legal process where a guilty outcome was a foregone conclusion.

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As international rights groups and foreign governments call for China to guarantee freedom for Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia, Xu’s supporters have also expressed concern as to whether he will remain under close surveillance or effective house arrest. Some said on social media they were blocked by security guards and plainclothes officers from entering Xu’s apartment compound on Saturday.

Other high-profile and politically sensitive prisoners released from prison, including rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu, remain closely watched by Chinese authorities.

“I hope he will be completely free,” Zhang said.

Xu taught law at a Beijing university and ran in a local election. He became prominent over a drive to abolish “custody and repatriation” powers, a form of arbitrary detention used by local governments to sweep homeless people off the streets.