Chinese COVID-19 whistleblower due for release after 4 years in jail

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Authorities in China were expected on Monday to release a citizen journalist jailed for four years after she documented the early phases of the coronavirus outbreak from the central city of Wuhan in 2020.

Zhang Zhan, 40, had travelled to Wuhan in early 2020 from Shanghai where she was based, posting first-hand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets that painted a more dire picture of the pandemic than the official narrative.

After several months of reporting that included videos, she was detained in May 2020. She went on hunger strike in late June, court documents seen by Reuters said, prompting police to strap her hands and force-feed her with a tube, her lawyers said at the time.

In December 2020 she was convicted by a Shanghai court of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to four years imprisonment.

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An indictment for Zhang’s case published by human rights activists indicated she would be released on Monday. One of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, however, told Reuters that he couldn’t yet confirm whether she had been released.

“Zhang Zhan’s relatives and family haven’t yet responded to me,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, told reporters he had no “relevant information” on the matter.

Jane Wang, a UK-based advocate for Zhang Zhan’s release, said Zhang’s family had been put under enormous pressure from authorities and warned not to engage with the media.

“It is totally unacceptable that the Chinese government subjects 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,” Wang told Reuters.

Zhang Zhan’s health seriously declined in jail and she was admitted to a prison hospital in mid-2023, rights groups say.

The US State Department condemned what it called Zhang’s “sham prosecution” and called repeatedly for her release.

Hailed as a hero by many regular Chinese for chronicling the coronavirus crisis amid an initial information blackout, her case also drew international attention as the virus spread rapidly around the world from the epicentre in Wuhan.

Chinese authorities have dealt with Zhang and other critics of its coronavirus policies harshly. Another COVID-19 whistleblower, Fang Bin, was jailed for three years before being reportedly released last year, according to media reports.

“Although people who have just been released are generally under strict surveillance and this process is even more painful than in prison, I still hope that she (Zhang) can get the freedom she deserves,” one of her supporters wrote on X.

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