Wife visits jailed China activist ahead of release

The wife of a prominent Chinese dissident who was jailed for sedition more than three years ago said she visited her husband Monday, days ahead of his scheduled release.

Activist Zeng Jinyan saw her husband, Hu Jia, at the Beijing Municipal Prison on Monday, Zeng told The Associated Press in an online conversation. Her mobile phones were switched off.

A major figure in China's dissident community, Hu was active in a broad range of civil liberties issues before he was imprisoned in 2008. His 3 1/2-year jail term is set to end Sunday.

But his scheduled release comes amid one of the Chinese government's broadest campaigns of repression in years as Beijing has moved to prevent the growth of an Arab-style protest movement.

There are concerns that, like other dissidents released recently from jail, Hu and his wife might be kept under house arrest.

Zeng, 27, would not discuss the visit or Hu's condition, saying she was not accepting interviews at the moment. She did not provide an explanation but it likely stems from concerns that speaking to the foreign media might jeopardize Hu's release.

On her Twitter page, Zeng said eight people escorted her away from Beijing's airport on Sunday after she arrived from southern China. "I think this is going to be the normal state of life from now on. I will read more books and get more mental and physical rest," she wrote.

In a posting last week, Zeng said that upon his release, Hu, who suffers from a liver ailment, would be deprived of his political rights for one year and will not be able to speak to the media. "For this one year the focus should be on treating his cirrhosis, caring for parents and child, to avoid being arrested again," she wrote.

Hu, 37, is known for his activism with AIDS patients and orphans. The sedition charge stems from police accusations that he planned to work with foreigners to disturb the 2008 Olympic Games.

In late 2008, Hu won the European Parliament's top human rights award, the 50,000 euro ($72,000) Sakharov Prize. Hu was honored in Strasbourg, France, where because he was in prison, his name was placed in front of an empty seat. He received a minute-long standing ovation from the Parliament.

China's government heaped scorn on the European Parliament's award, with Beijing calling Hu a criminal and the award interference.

Initially an advocate for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, Hu expanded his efforts after the government gave little ground and he began to see the country's problems as rooted in authorities' lack of respect for human rights.

Hu used the Internet and telephone to chronicle the harassment and arrests of other dissidents and also published a series of articles criticizing the authorities for using the Olympics to mask serious human rights abuses. He was detained in December 2007 and sentenced in April 2008.

In recent months, hundreds of lawyers, activists and other intellectuals have been questioned, detained, confined to their homes or simply disappeared in the wake of online appeals calling for peaceful protests across the country. Though no protests took place, the calls spooked the Chinese government into launching the clampdown.

China's rights environment has "considerably deteriorated" since Hu was arrested, said Human Rights Watch senior Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin.

"This cycle of repression is cutting deeper than previous ones because it was marked by the deliberate use of extra-judicial tactics such as enforced disappearances, longtime house arrest, and arbitrary harassment by the security organs," Bequelin said.

"Whether Hu Jia will be genuinely free upon his release from prison remains to be seen. The recent record does not give ground for optimism," he added.

Another activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife have been kept under an unofficial house arrest in their village in eastern China since he was released from jail last fall, and reporters trying to visit them have been kept away by thugs who patrol the village.

Chen angered authorities after documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations and other abuses in his rural community, but was sentenced for instigating an attack on government offices and organizing a group of people to disrupt traffic, charges his supporters say were fabricated.