BEIJING – The wife and a friend of a prominent Chinese civil rights lawyer said he returned home Wednesday after disappearing for five days amid an ongoing government crackdown on dissent.
Li Fangping vanished Friday after leaving a meeting with a group that fights discrimination against people with hepatitis B. It was not known where he went, but his disappearance came as hundreds of people have been detained, confined at home, interrogated or simply vanished.
Li's friend Lu Jun said Li contacted his wife Wednesday evening and asked her to pick him up in a north Beijing neighborhood.
The friend said Li said he wants to rest and does not wish to discuss the events of the past week.
Other lawyers and activists released in recent weeks have also declined to speak to the media, perhaps as a condition of their release and to avoid raising questions about their treatment while detained.
Li's wife also confirmed her husband's release in a brief telephone conversation, but offered no details. She was identified only by the common Chinese surname, Zheng, a frequent means by which Chinese lawyers and dissidents shield their spouses from harassment by the authorities.
The recent series of lawyer disappearances — if they are indeed part of a government crackdown — appears to follow a pattern of take-one-in, set-one-free.
Li's release coincided with the disappearance of colleague Li Xiongbing, who called his wife Wu Haiying on Wednesday afternoon to say he would be away for a few days and not to be worried if she was unable to reach him during that time. The call was then cut off and Wu was unable to get subsequently get through.
"I am worried, because many of our friends have disappeared. Li Fangping's wife also received a similar phone call during his disappearance. I think now it is (Li Xiongbing's) turn," Wu told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Li Xiongbing's accreditation as both a lawyer and an accountant made him particularly useful to groups being targeted for tax investigations — a form of harassment favored by the authorities, said Wan Yanhai, founder of the AIDS advocacy group Aizhixing, who fled to the United States with his family a year ago in the face of rising threats.
Wan said Li Xiongbing had worked on numerous human rights cases and had represented Aizhixing in its dealings with officials.
Li Fangping's own detention on Friday had come within hours of the release of rights lawyer Teng Biao, who disappeared, apparently into police custody, for more than two months.
A law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, Teng was among the first people taken away in the massive security crackdown, that appears to have been sparked by the communist leadership's fears of Middle East-inspired unrest migrating to China's cities, where anonymous online appeals for protest gatherings have so far gone unheeded.
The most high-profile person targeted by authorities so far is famed Chinese artist and outspoken government critic Ai Weiwei, who had been keeping an informal tally of the recent detentions on Twitter before he disappeared early this month.
(This version CORRECTS spelling of Li Xiongbing's name.)