Renowned Chinese human rights lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was released from prison on Sunday. However, he was taken to a residence 400 km away from his home in the capital city of Beijing to serve a mandatory quarantine of two weeks as a preventive measure against COVID-19, amid speculation that it could possibly result in his house arrest.

His wife, Li Wenzu, asserted that the Chinese government was using the pandemic as an excuse to keep him under house arrest. "They used the pretext of the epidemic as an excuse to quarantine him for 14 days when he should have been able to return to his home in Beijing according to the relevant legal guidelines, " she told Agence France-Presse(AFP).

Wang was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in 2019 for being "guilty of subversion of state power". He was detained in 2015 as a part of the '709' crackdown and was one of the 200 human rights lawyers and critics of the government who were picked up as President Xi Jinping consolidated his power.

Wang Quanzhang
Wang Quanzhang Twitter/Li Wenzu Wang Quanzhang's wife

Far from home

In a tweet accompanied by pictures of their family, Li said that she had received confirmation from Wang himself about his release earlier in the day. However, he told her that he was being escorted to his former residence in the city of Jinan to be quarantined for 14 days.

(https://twitter.com/709liwenzu/status/1246629755161423876)

Li also said in the tweet that the police had evicted the tenants living at Wang's house in Jinan to accommodate him. "The house in Jinan was originally rented out. The police drove the tenant away and sent Quanzhang to the house in Jinan," she wrote.

According to another tweet by Li, the authorities at Linyi Prison—where he was incarcerated—pressurised Wang to ''persuade" her into accepting the quarantine arrangement. "In the morning at Linyi Prison, Quan Zhang called to force Quan Zhang to persuade me to accept Quan Zhang 's trip to Jinan and I would never agree. Wang Quanzhang wants true freedom on April 5th," she tweeted.

(https://twitter.com/709liwenzu/status/1246300514649665536)

'709' crackdown

Money laundering
Representational Picture Pixabay

While Wang was sentenced only in January 2019 in a closed-door trial, he was held incommunicado for over four years. Nearly two-and-a-half years after Xi Jinping assumed office; Chinese authorities began taking alleged "subverters" into custody. Beginning on 9 July 2015—the date the clampdown derives its name from—over 200 human rights lawyers and vocal critics of the government began disappearing.

Before his detention, Wang worked at the now-shut law firm, Fengrui. During his practice, he defended several victims of land seizures and political activists. His wife and son were permitted to meet him in June 2019, over four years after they saw him for the last time.

After the visit, Li told the media that her husband's condition had deteriorated and that he was a "changed man". "He is a totally changed man ... he was so agitated and anxious that I couldn't even talk to him just then," Li told the South China Morning Press.

No freedom in sight

Li fears that the Chinese government will place Wang under a long-term house arrest and prevent the family from reuniting for a very long time. "The government is continuing to restrict his personal freedoms and forcing us to be separated. This behaviour is shameless, I'm absolutely opposed to this and am very angry," she told the Guardian.

A few days before Wang's release, the Human Rights Watch had issued a joint statement where it anticipated his house arrest. Pointing towards the plight of other "released" activists, the statement said, "This is an attempt to isolate Wang Quanzhang from his network and was similarly used against other 709 lawyers, including lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was released on 28 February 2019 but is still under house arrest in Henan, and deprived of his right to proper medical care."

The statement also invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which guarantees the freedom of movement within the borders of China, the statement added, "Restricting Wang's freedom to choose his own place of residence would therefore lack any legal justification."