The daughters of a veteran Chinese dissident jailed in September after he protested his youngest child's ban from schools in the eastern province of Anhui have been granted political asylum in the United States, a U.S.-based rights group said on Thursday.
Zhang Anni and her elder sister Ruli left China for California following their father's arrest in August 2013 following a dispute with the authorities after police pulled Anni out of primary school earlier in the year and detained her for several hours.
They were taken in by Reggie Littlejohn, founder of the Women Without Frontiers rights group, where they are now permitted to remain indefinitely.
"We are absolutely thrilled that Anni and Ruli have been granted asylum and can remain indefinitely in the United States," Littlejohn said in a statement on the group's website.
"[My husband] and I enjoy being the American parents of Anni and Ruli, and we are very proud of them," she said.
Anni was dubbed "China's youngest prisoner of conscience" after she was taken out of school and detained for several hours in February 2013; denied food, water, and a blanket; and later prevented from attending school and held under house arrest, Zhang and other activists told RFA at the time.
Zhang pleaded not guilty to charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" at his trial in Anhui's Bengbu city in December 2013, telling the court his actions had been "reasonable and lawful" at all times and were a response to the illegal actions of the authorities.
According to Littlejohn, the sisters are not the first children of veteran dissidents from China's 1989 pro-democracy movement to be targeted by the authorities and the family has suffered economic hardship as a result of Zhang's long-term unemployment linked to his dissident past.
"It is a great honor to be able to help a hero like Zhang Lin by caring for his daughters," she said. "He has given up everything for freedom and democracy in China, and is now on his fourth jail sentence."
"It is a travesty that he is in jail simply for standing up for his daughter's right to go to school," Littlejohn said.'
'A mafia society'
Beijing-based activist Hu Jia welcomed the news.
"China isn't a country ruled by law; it is lawless and governed by political concerns," Hu said. "It's pretty much like a mafia society."
"If the state security police target someone, they will go after everything they care about as a means of controlling them," he said. "The families and children of prisoners of conscience are always their weak points."
Already living in California, both girls wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama in September, calling on the White House to intervene on their father's behalf.
Zhang Lin's daughters are concerned about his well-being after he was moved from a jail in his home town, where his elderly parents could visit him, to a city several hours away, where his parents will not be able to visit often, Littlejohn said.
Chinese prisoners are dependent on family food donations to maintain a sufficiently nutritious diet in prison.
Littlejohn's group is sending money to Zhang Lin's parents on his behalf, she said, adding: "If his parents cannot visit him, we have no means of getting the money to the jail to ensure that he can eat properly."
"His health is delicate, and we are worried that if he has to subsist on gruel, his health will break down," she added.
Doing well in school
Both Anni and Ruli are quickly learning English and are progressing well in school, especially in math, science, and music, Littlejohn said.
Zhang and Anni left the provincial capital of Anhui in April 2013 for the family's hometown of Bengbu after more than 30 activists from around the country converged on Hefei in protest at Anni's Feb. 27, 2013 removal from the city's Hupo Elementary School by police.
The family was held under house arrest and Anni was still denied permission to attend school, prompting Zhang to escape house arrest to press his case with National People's Congress delegates and activists in Beijing.
State security police brought the pair back to Bengbu amid firm promises that Anni could attend school and that no retaliatory action would be taken.
But the authorities swiftly moved against Zhang, holding him under criminal detention soon after his return and prompting a lone protest from Anni outside the Bengbu detention center, where she held up a placard which read: "Release my father and let me go to school."
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.