Jailed Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was allowed to see his wife and young son on Friday for the first time in nearly four years since he disappeared in a crackdown.
Wang, 43, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in January for “subverting state power” following a closed-door trial.
A prominent lawyer who defended political activists and victims of land seizures, Wang vanished in a sweep aimed at courtroom critics of Communist authorities known as the “709” clampdown because the arrests started on July 9, 2015.
Wang was held incommunicado for over 1,000 days without access to his family or a lawyer prior to his trial and authorities have repeatedly denied requests by his wife Li Wenzu to visit him in jail.
“My husband’s health has deteriorated during the long incarceration, he had lost so much weight,” Li told AFP.
“When I asked him what he had for breakfast, he kept scratching his head. But he couldn’t remember,” she said.
“It was really emotional. This was the first time my son and I got a chance to see him after being separated for four years.”
The couple’s six-year-old son, Wang Guangwei, was a toddler when his father disappeared.
Li saw her husband at the Linyi jail in the eastern province of Shandong, where he was transferred in May after years spent at a detention centre in Tianjin.
“I felt like he was not the earlier Wang Quanzhang,” his sister Wang Quanxiu, who was also at the meeting, told AFP.
“He was very agitated when he spoke to us. He had made a draft about what to discuss and had to constantly keep looking at his notes to remind himself of what to say,” she said.
Wang Quanzhang was the last of more than 200 lawyers and activists swept up in the 2015 crackdown to be tried or released.
Li, who has actively protested against her husband’s detention and sentencing, has repeatedly demanded proof of life from the authorities.
She was placed under de facto house arrest the day before Wang’s December 26 trial to prevent her from attending.
Earlier that month, before Wang’s court date was announced, Li and three supporters shaved their heads and tried to submit a petition to a Beijing court, protesting against his detention.
In April last year, she attempted to march 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the Tianjin detention centre where Wang was previously held.
Earlier this week, a video was posted on Twitter showing Li shouting over the prison wall asking whether Wang Quanzheng was alive.
It was only on Thursday morning that she received a call from Shandong provincial authorities saying she would be allowed a 30-minute visit.
“I’ve never really known if he was alive all these years, and finally there was a clear message I can meet him,” Li tweeted Thursday.
Authorities had also called Wang Quanxiu Thursday at about 11am and told her she could meet her brother at 2pm that day.
“I rushed to the Linyi jail as soon as I received the call, but when I got there it was already 5pm so I missed the chance to see him that day,” Wang Quanxiu said.
“We have been calling the prison authorities all week to no avail, and then suddenly they changed their mind.”
The timing of the meeting, which coincides with the G20 summit in Japan, has led to speculation that the Chinese Communist Party “might be offering a compromise” to embellish China’s checkered human rights record, said Chan Yue, an activist from the Human Rights Concern Group in Hong Kong.
Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and detaining hundreds of activists and lawyers.
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