05/13/2024, 18.58
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Status of jailed blogger who reported on COVID-19 unknown on day of expected release

Zhang Zhan, 40, was a leading human rights advocate in Shanghai. The Christian woman was supposed to be freed today after four years in prison, but her fate remains unknown while her family has been forced into silence. Activist groups following her case fear that, as in other cases, she might be detained under a different form.

Shanghai (AsiaNews/Agencies) – After serving a four-year sentence for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” Zhang Zhan, was supposed to be free today.

In February 2020, the Shanghai-based Christian blogger travelled to Wuhan, the city at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic, where she engaged in “citizen journalism” for three months and reported on what was happening.

But nothing was reported today from the Shanghai women's prison where she purged her prison sentence. This has set off alarm bells among human rights groups who fear that she might still be denied her freedom by other means.

Zhang, 40, a graduate of Southwestern University of Finance and Economics (SWUFE) in Chengdu, worked as a lawyer but her licence was suspended in Shanghai because of her fight for human rights.

She was arrested for the first time in September 2019 for marching with an umbrella on Nanjing Road in Shanghai in support of the Hong Kong protests.

When the first news about pandemic filtered out, she went to Wuhan to document what was going on, posting online about a hundred videos in three months, and answering questions from international media.

Arrested in May 2020, she became the first blogger to be convicted for spreading news about the pandemic.

In a statement released this evening at 7:30 pm (Beijing time), the UK-based Free Zhang Zhan campaign, which has kept the spotlight on her case, could not confirm her release and return home.

“We understand that Zhang Zhan’s family have been under enormous pressure and warned severely not to give media interviews,” reads a campaign statement.

“Friends’ calls have also been left without answers. At least one Shanghai-based activist has been summoned by police for talking about getting Zhang Zhan from prison on 13 May with her mother.

“A Henan-based activist has been intercepted at a train station en route to Shanghai; she wanted to greet Zhang Zhan or at least show solidarity with her outside Shanghai Women’s Prison. [. . .] These are extremely worrying signs,” the statement goes on to say.

“If Zhang Zhan faces the same situation as her fellow rights activist Chen Jianfang (who has been placed under house arrest by Shanghai authorities since October 2023, when she was released from prison), she will have little chance of getting urgently needed, long-overdue medical treatment and recuperation.

“It is totally unacceptable that the Chinese government subject many human rights defenders and their families to this kind of cruelty. 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.

“Zhang Zhan should have regained her freedom. We should have heard from her or her family by now. Instead, we are left wondering where she is, how she is doing physically and mentally, what’s happened to her family, and what the future holds for her: A prisoner in her own home (like Chen Jianfang)? Detention in a medical facility without access to her family (like Hubei-based activist Yin Xu’an)? Forced disappearance (like human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng)?

“The silence speaks volumes. We call on the international society to hold the Chinese Communist regime accountable for its horrendous practice of ‘soft detention’ or ‘non-release release’ of former political prisoners.”

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