After waiting for more than three years for her husband's release from prison, the final days of Chinese dissident Hu Jia's sentence should be a time of anticipation for his wife and young daughter. Instead, they are filled with grim understanding that another ordeal is sure to begin as soon as this one ends.
Mr. Hu, an internationally known human-rights activist who while behind bars won the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2008, is due to be released on June 26 at the end of his sentence on charges of "inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system." While his wife, Zeng Jinyan, believes he will indeed be released on time, she has already been told that Mr. Hu will be far from a free man.
"I have heard from the police that his release won't happen in the regular way. I am not clear about the details," the 27-year-old Ms. Zeng, herself a prominent government critic and blogger, said via e-mail. "As the current political environment is even worse than at the time he was jailed, I am preparing in my mind for long-term house arrest."
Already, Ms. Zeng and the couple's 3½-year-old daughter have been under escalated surveillance and harassment. Several months ago, she said, she was pressured into leaving the couple's home in Beijing. She has since taken up residence in Shenzhen, an industrial city near Hong Kong, only to have her landlord come under pressure from police to evict her once more. "My situation is not very good. I'm watched and harassed," she wrote.
Worried about the situation she and her husband will be in after his release, Ms. Zeng recently decided to put their daughter in the care of family and close friends for the immediate future.
Ms. Zeng said she last saw her husband in late May. She said he was in a good state of mind and optimistic about his release, though the 37-year-old Mr. Hu has been suffering from a liver condition that Ms. Zeng says isn't being properly treated.
Mr. Hu first got involved in environmental activism while studying information engineering at the Beijing School of Economics (now Capital University of Economics and Business). Afterward, he joined a newly formed non-governmental organization, the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, which focuses on raising awareness of HIV/AIDS. Later, he took on other causes, including the rights of political prisoners.
By 2007, Mr. Hu had become one of the most prominent critics of the Communist Party government living inside China. Invited to address a session of the European Parliament in November of that year, he condemned the decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing when the country had such a poor human-rights record. A month later, he disappeared into police detention. He was formally convicted in April, 2008, and was believed to have been on the final shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
If Mr. Hu is released on time, he will leave prison at a time when authorities are in the midst of another crackdown on critics that has seen prominent activists, lawyers and artists detained, often without charge. Some of those who have been released from formal detention are now under house arrest or being held incommunicado, as in the cases of blind activist Chen Guangcheng and a Mongolian dissident writer known only as Hada - perhaps foreshadowing the future for Mr. Hu and his family.
Mr. Hu's lawyer, Li Fangping, also appears to have been targeted. He disappeared for five days last month into what friends say was police detention. However, Mr. Li has declined to speak about what happened to him during the period he was missing.
Adding to the sensitivity of the situation, Mr. Hu's release date is six days before the country will mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1.
Though there will be plenty of people wanting to speak to Mr. Hu upon his release, Ms. Zeng says she just wants him to spend some time alone with his family. His friends and fellow activists also believe he should keep a low profile, at least in the short term.
"As a friend, I wish he will be quiet for some time [and focus on]his health, his family and his personal safety," said Wan Yanhai, a fellow activist who founded the Aizhixing AIDS institute, but who left China with his family last year after citing fears about his personal safety.