Dozens of activists who tried to escort a political dissident's daughter to her local primary school in China's Anhui province clashed with unidentified assailants on Monday, while the school refused to allow her to return to class following her removal by police last month, her father said.
On Feb. 27, police arrived at the Hupo Primary school in Hefei city and took Zhang Anni, the daughter of activist Zhang Lin, out of class and brought her back home, sparking an online campaign to allow Zhang Anni to return to school.
Zhang Lin, Anni, and around 40 supporters were attacked by unidentified men when they arrived at the Hupo Primary School on Monday in a bid to kick-start her stalled schooling, Zhang said.
"Our online friends and lawyers got together, around 40 of them, from more than a dozen cities around the country, as well as [some] from Hefei," Zhang said on Monday after the attack.
"We had banners which read 'Let Anni go to school,' and there were a lot of bystanders to whom we explained things," he said.
"The protest wasn't stopped [by police], but when we got to the school, several unidentified people started to cause trouble and pick fights, and there were some shouting matches and physical scuffles."
"In the melee, Anni was hit by someone's fist," he said.
Zhang said the men had denied being hired to be there, and had claimed to be bystanders.
"But when the police came and questioned them, they told them they were actually police, but then they had no form of ID and were made to run off," he said. "In the end, we never got to the bottom of it."
A teacher who answered the phone at the Hupo Primary School denied Anni had been taken away by police.
"That would never happen, but I don't really know about this," the teacher said.
Zhang said he had tried to reason with staff at the gates of the school, but that they had refused adamantly to readmit Anni to school.
"The principal told us that the removal of Anni by police had had a very bad influence on the school, and that the students, teachers, and parents were all very frightened," Zhang said.
"They all felt that the school wasn't safe, because how could a kid just be taken away by some random guys and some secret police," he said.
The principal said the school would accept Anni back only if the relevant authorities would guarantee to the school that they would never take a student away again, Zhang said.
"I think they should stand up to this pressure, but they have thrown away their principles and relinquished their responsibilities," he said.
"My lawyers are currently investigating what action can be taken against the school for handing over my child to some people whose purpose and identity were unclear," Zhang said.
Beijing-based lawyer Jiang Tianyong said he and fellow lawyer Tan Jitian were both on Zhang's legal team, had passed through Hebei on their way back to Beijing on Monday, and had been visited by police.
"They came twice to our hotel room," Jiang said. "We have various guesses, but we don't know exactly what's going on."
"We thought maybe they are just making sure to continually harass us," Jiang said.
An officer who answered the phone at the local police station said he was unaware of the situation, however.
In an interview with RFA's Mandarin Service last month, Anni said her ordeal had made her less trusting than before.
"I don't really want to be around strangers right now, and I don't like going downstairs," she said in a March 14 interview.
Zhang, 50, a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui, has served more than 13 years in prison on subversion charges for his political activities since the banning of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) in 1998.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.