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Visitors crowd Tiananmen Square and Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on June 4, 2013.Andy Wong/The Associated Press

Some time this weekend, the last known person imprisoned for crimes committed during China's student-led protests in 1989 is believed to have walked out of a remote prison several hours outside Beijing.

Factory worker Miao Deshun was sentenced to death for throwing a basket into a burning tank, as soldiers descended upon Tiananmen Square in Beijing in early June of 1989, opening fire and killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.

The deadly response remains one of the blackest marks on the record of China's Communist Party. The most severe punishment was given not to the leaders who ordered the deadly crackdown, but to students and labourers who had protested for greater freedoms and sought to slow the advance of the soldiers.

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Many were sentenced to death for offences such as "defecting to the enemy and turning traitor" and "participating in armed mass rebellion," but had their sentences reduced by authorities, who have released them over the past 27 years.

Mr. Miao, whose death sentence for arson was commuted to life in prison and then reduced again, remained behind bars. Those who knew him in prison said he refused to admit guilt and was punished by being kept in isolation and prodded with electric batons.

Now, he is believed to be free after a Chinese court said he would be let out this past weekend. It may take weeks to confirm, but "I have no reason to believe that he was not released," said John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, which tracks political prisoners in China and advocates for their release.

The number of known Tiananmen prisoners has fallen from an estimated 158 Beijing residents in 1998, to about 30 in 2009 and now, to the best knowledge of the human-rights community, none.

But others have since been imprisoned for crimes related to remembering Tiananmen. Activist Li Hai spent nearly a decade behind bars for compiling a list of Tiananmen-related prisoners. Last year, police detained artist Chen Yunfei for visiting the grave of a student killed by soldiers in Beijing in 1989; Mr. Chen remains in prison. Earlier this year, four men were detained for selling white baijiu liquor whose name was meant to recall June 4, 1989. They are still in detention.

Chinese prisons have also been populated with large numbers of others accused of and sentenced for political crimes – Dui Hua tracks some 6,000 of them. The foundation has records on a further 27,000 who have been released but remain under police surveillance.

Mr. Miao's release would nonetheless place an end to one lingering chapter of the Tiananmen protests – while at the same time the length of his sentence shows the continuing determination of Chinese authorities to crack down on anyone who challenges them.

Even if he walks free, "China will continue to run the world's largest censorship apparatus, in part to airbrush historical incidents like Tiananmen from the country's consciousness," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

Still, "the last person to emerge from prison carries some significance – the significance being the reminder of how long this person actually suffered in prison," said Wue'r Kaixi, a student leader during the Tiananmen protests who now lives in Taiwan.

Throughout that time, Mr. Miao refused to admit to having done anything criminal and also refused to work in a prison "re-education-by-labour" scheme," said Sun Liyong, who was incarcerated at Beijing Number 2 prison from 1993 to 1998, at a time Mr. Miao was also held there. "So he was often given electric shocks almost every day. We could hear his screaming."

Often, he was held in solitary confinement and placed under "strict administration," a prison punishment that can mean barring a prisoner from speaking with others and keeping them under constant watch, even in the bathroom.

"I sometimes went to his cell and stayed for a while, but he didn't like to communicate with anyone," said Wu Wenjian, who was kept in a "rioters" group in prison with Mr. Miao.

He described Mr. Miao as physically weak, suffering from liver inflammation, but nonetheless unwilling to bend to demands that he confess wrongdoing. "Even in his condition, he still denied the charges against him," Mr. Wu said.

People like Mr. Miao were considered third-class prisoners, given only five yuan (97 cents) a month to buy niceties such as toilet paper, soap, toothpaste or better meals. "He couldn't even buy canned food. So he probably had the toughest life in the prison," Mr. Sun said.

Mr. Miao cut off ties with his family and often stared straight ahead.

"If his mental condition did collapse, it would be very normal," Mr. Sun said. He fears authorities will place Mr. Miao in a mental institution. "This is the most likely option, because the government will hide him from the public and not allow him to have contact with previous Six Four people or foreign journalists."

Six Four refers to June 4, 1989, the day soldiers opened fire on protesters.

A mentally ill prisoner released from Tiananmen-related charges several years ago "was taken in by a community centre," Mr. Kamm said. "I think Mr. Miao might have been returned to his home county in Hebei, but that's just a guess at this point."

Leaving prison after many years can be a hardship in itself. Family members can resent years spent without a loved one and income-earner – roles someone like Mr. Miao may struggle to re-establish.

"After being in jail for so long, they have no skills," and companies may hesitate to hire them, said Li Hai, the activist who compiled the list of Tiananmen prisoners. Many end up "living in quite difficult conditions."

There is also the likelihood of constant surveillance in a country that, under Xi Jinping, has more severely punished dissidents.

Mr. Miao "may soon find he's entered the world's biggest prison, though he left a smaller one," said Rose Tang, another former Tiananmen student leader.

"Today's China is experiencing the worst human-rights abuses since Tiananmen of 1989," she added. "I hope he'll survive this China and I hope more Tiananmen prisoners will come to be known and documented."