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This 2007 photo shows prominent human rights activist Hu Jia, who was sentenced in 2008 to three years and six months in jail for subversion, his lawyer said, amid what rights groups charge was a campaign by China to silence dissent before the Olympics.FREDERIC J. BROWN

Among China's small but brave community of government critics, the silence is deafening.

Hu Jia, a previously indomitable human rights activist, became the latest prominent dissident to be released from detention only to be barred from speaking out against the ruling Communist Party, which has become increasingly intolerant of dissent in recent months.

The Communist Party now appears to have secured the silence of some of its most prominent critics through this fall's annual meeting of its Central Committee and next spring's National People's Congress, a period that will see a sensitive transition at the very top, with the current Politburo headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao giving way to a new generation of leaders headed by current Vice-President Xi Jinping.

The 37-year-old Mr. Hu, who three years ago won the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and who was believed to have been a finalist several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, arrived home early Sunday after completing a 3½-year sentence for "inciting subversion." He was initially arrested shortly after testifying to the European Parliament in 2007 about the human-rights situation in China, during which he criticized the decision to award the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.

"Sleepless night," Mr. Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted in Chinese Sunday on her Twitter account. "Hu Jia arrived home at 2:30 in the morning. [He's]safe, very happy. Needs to rest for a while. Thanks, everyone."

Ms. Zeng, herself a well-known blogger, later told the Reuters news agency that she and her husband did not want to give interviews at this stage, as it "might cause problems." In a previous Twitter posting, she said her husband would be deprived of his political rights for one year following his release and would not be able to speak to media.

Dozens of policemen were deployed around the couple's Beijing residence, preventing reporters from approaching.

Such coerced silence of critics of the ruling Communist Party has become routine recently. Last week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei was released after 80 days in a secret detention centre, on the condition that he not speak to reporters or use his Twitter account for one year. Four associates of Mr. Ai's were also freed with the same restrictions.

Similarly, Chen Guangcheng, a blind human-rights lawyer and friend of Mr. Hu's, was released last year after four years in prison but has been kept under unacknowledged house arrest in his village in Shandong province. Mr. Chen has also been prevented from speaking to media – journalists who tried to visit were chased away by thugs – though he has managed to smuggle out videos highlighting his ordeal.

Meanwhile, Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, has been held incommunicado since her husband won the award last fall. Mr. Liu still has more than nine years remaining on his own 11-year subversion sentence, which is tied to his role in drafting a pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08.

In a statement, Amnesty International said at least 130 activists "have been detained, forcibly disappeared, harassed and imprisoned within their homes since February," when Beijing was spooked by mysterious online calls for Chinese to stage a "jasmine revolution" like those that toppled authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Many of those who were detained have gone conspicuously quiet since being freed.

Ms. Zeng said she was already experiencing escalating police harassment in advance of her husband's release. She said she was pressured into leaving the couple's Beijing home for the southern city of Shenzhen, only to be forced out of that apartment as well. Ms. Zeng eventually left the couple's 3 ½-year-old daughter with friends and relatives so that she wouldn't have to live under house arrest and surveillance like her parents.

Mr. Hu got his start in environmental activism while studying information engineering at the Beijing College of Economics (now Capital University of Economics and Business). After graduating, he joined a newly formed non-governmental organization, the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, which provides support to HIV/AIDS sufferers. Later, he took on other causes, including the rights of political prisoners, and became one of the most prominent critics of the Communist Party living inside China.

When he was awarded the 2008 Sasskharov Prize at a ceremony in Strasbourg, France, the jailed Mr. Hu was represented by an empty chair, just as Mr. Liu's award was placed on an empty chair during last year's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

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