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Concerns over China's 'missing' pandemic whistleblower

Zhang Zhan went to Wuhan to cover Covid-19 and questioned the handling of the pandemic by authorities
Activist Lee Cheuk-Yan speaks outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong during a protest calling on China to free citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan (top left poster) on Dec. 28, 2020. Zhan’s bid to report on Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan angered China.

Activist Lee Cheuk-Yan speaks outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong during a protest calling on China to free citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan (top left poster) on Dec. 28, 2020. Zhan’s bid to report on Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan angered China. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 14, 2024 10:54 AM GMT
Updated: May 14, 2024 11:11 AM GMT

Supporters of citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan in China have expressed concern about her whereabouts following her release from jail and have accused police of intimidating her family.

In a press statement on May 13, activist Jane Wang said they have not received any confirmation that Zhan has left the prison and is home with her family.

Wang is part of the movement Free Zhang Zhan that has been lobbying for her release globally.

“We understand that Zhan’s family have been under enormous pressure and warned severely not to give media interviews,” Wang said.

“It is totally unacceptable that the Chinese government subjects many human rights defenders and their families to this kind of cruelty,” Wang added.

“Even after their release from prison, they are still deprived of their basic rights. For some, it’s like they’ve been given a life sentence,” Wang said.

Zhang, a lawyer-turned-reporter, had traveled to Wuhan in February 2020 to provide on-the-ground information about the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures imposed in the city.

She had reportedly questioned the handling of the crisis by authorities and had also reported how government officials had detained independent reporters and harassed families of Covid-19 patients.

Zhang, who had gone missing in May 2020, was detained by Chinese authorities in Shanghai. A Chinese court had later sentenced her to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a common accusation used against dissenting citizens.

Allegedly, one Shanghai-based activist has been summoned by police for talking about getting Zhang from prison on May 13 with her mother.

Another Henan-based activist Shen Yanqiu who was en route to Shanghai to greet Zhang or at least show solidarity with her outside Shanghai Women’s Prison was reportedly intercepted by police at a train station, rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch reported.

“These are extremely worrying signs,” Wang lamented.

The group called upon the international society to hold the Chinese Communist regime “accountable for its horrendous practice of ‘soft detention’ or ‘non-release’ of former political prisoners.”

Soft detention is a form of house arrest used by China to control political dissidents.

According to a report by Madrid-based Safeguard Defenders, China uses “Residential Surveillance (RS),” with the help of legal loopholes to simply bar communication and isolate victims within their homes.

The victims’ ID cards and passports are seized, bank accounts frozen, phone calls tapped, internet activity monitored, and meetings with family or lawyers blocked by the police and government officials, the report said.

Residential Surveillance was introduced into the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) in 1979 and has been implemented on a large scale to muzzle dissent and criticism.

Using official government data, Safeguard Defenders highlighted a meteoric increase in Residential Surveillance from only 5,549 cases in the first year of President Xi Jinping’s rule in 2013 to 28,704 (417 percent) in the second year.

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