Authorities in the Chinese capital on Tuesday released two members of an influential nongovernmental think tank detained during a crackdown on supporters of last year's Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, according to one of their lawyers.
Guo Yushan, who founded the Transition Institute think tank, had played a key role in the escape from house arrest of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng in 2012, and was also publicly supportive of the pro-democracy movement across the internal border in Hong Kong.
He was detained on Oct. 9 alongside the Transition Institute's administrator He Zhengjun on suspicion of "illegal business activity."
Both men were released on "bail" in the early hours of Tuesday, Guo's lawyer told RFA on Tuesday.
The move comes ahead of a state visit to the United States by President Xi Jinping later this month, and is seen by some analysts as a symbolic concession to U.S. concerns over Beijing's human rights record.
Guo's detention drew protests from several international rights groups and came amid a nationwide crackdown on supporters of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement for fully democratic elections.
"He was bailed out ... and his wife went to meet him," Guo's lawyer Li Jin said. "He is with his family for the time being. He seems in good spirits, but he's a lot thinner now."
He added: "The two of them came out together, and the case is in the process of being sent back by the prosecution."
Charges could be resurrected
In China, the People's Procuratorate may send cases back to police if there is insufficient evidence to convict them, meaning that the charges against Guo and He could still be resurrected.
Release on "bail," particularly in politically motivated cases, often comes with conditions attached and continued restrictions on a person's freedom, and is often used as a way to silence outspoken activists once they have been released.
Guo's wife, Pan Haixia, told Reuters that she couldn't give an interview, other than to confirm his release.
"It is not convenient for me to speak to friends from the media," she told the agency.
Calls to Guo's former cell phone number resulted in a "no such number" message on Tuesday, while calls to He's number resulted in a "switched off" message.
He's lawyer Li Jinxing confirmed his client's release in a brief phone call on Tuesday, adding that He seemed in reasonably good health.
Guo, 38, played a key role in the 2012 escape from house arrest of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who is now a visiting legal scholar in the United States.
Guo's detention sent shock waves through China's civil rights community, because he was widely regarded as a measured and moderate critic of government policy. His lawyers said he carried out his activities entirely within the law.
The Transition Institute was shut down by the authorities, who have since widened their crackdown on nongovernmental groups with a slew of new rules and laws restricting their activities and sources of funding.
Carefully timed release
According to Maya Wang, a researcher at New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), the release of the two activists could be carefully timed ahead of Xi's visit.
"The Chinese government may have released the two in advance of the Xi-Obama meeting to try to tone down U.S. pressure on China's dismal rights record," Wang told Reuters on Tuesday.
"The U.S. State Department had earlier warned that human rights were to be prominently raised by Obama," Wang said.
Last week, nine U.S.-based rights groups called on President Barack Obama to invite activists, lawyers and other members of the China's nascent civil society to the White House ahead of Xi's visit.
Efforts by Obama's administration aren't enough to change the behavior of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which has stepped up its crackdown on lawyers, rights activists and peaceful critics of the regime since Xi took power in 2012, a letter signed by nine organizations said.
The letter comes after rights activists inside China called on Obama to cancel the trip altogether, saying that Xi stands to gain far more in terms of political legitimacy back home from the symbolic trappings of a state visit than does Washington.
It said China is now seeing a "human rights crisis" sparked by the government's targeting of an increasingly vocal civil society.
New and forthcoming legislation means that nongovernmental groups will likely also see their funding curtailed, while peaceful criticism of the government will be framed as a threat to state security, it said.
Beijing has billed the trip as marking a new era in the relationship with Washington, one of relations between two "major countries."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.