Prominent human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong is missing, presumed re-detained, following the end of his prison sentence.
Jiang had been scheduled for release from Henan's Xinxiang No. 2 Prison on Thursday, at the end of a two-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power."
But his family was told that "he has already been taken away by someone else" by prison authorities on Thursday.
Jiang's family members had earlier warned that he might not regain all of his freedom, following notification from state security police that he wouldn't be allowed to return to them.
State security police said they would be taking him instead to the provincial capital Zhengzhou, where they would find him a place to live and a job, his family members said.
Jiang's U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling said she is extremely worried for his safety.
"We don't know how Jiang Tianyong is, or who took him away, or where they took him," Jin told RFA. "[He] has basically disappeared."
"I fear for his health and safety, as well as the safety of his father and sister," she said. "I call on the Chinese authorities to make public Jiang Tianyong's location; he should have his liberty now that his sentence has been served."
Jiang's sister Jiang Jinping had earlier been told that she would be allowed to visit her brother in Zhengzhou.
Release from prison
Rights activist Yuan Shanshan, whose husband Xie Yanyi was detained in the same crackdown on China's legal profession, said she had traveled to Henan in the hope of meeting Jiang on his release from prison.
But when she arrived, she was told by a police officer in a sentry box on the street outside the facility that Jiang had already "been taken away."
"There was a noticeable increase in the number of state security police officers outside the jail during the time I was waiting ... and the police would come over from time to time to ask me what I was doing there," Yuan told RFA.
"When I told them I had come to meet Jiang Tianyong, they said his family would be meeting him," she said. "There were a couple dozen state security police there watching me."
Yuan was only told later by the police sentry that Jiang had already been taken away.
"One guy came out and told me straight that Jiang had been taken away," Yuan said. "When I left, a whole bunch of state security police followed me from the prison gates all the way back to the lobby of my hotel."
Yuan said she had made repeated attempts to contact Jiang's sister Jiang Jinping and his father Jiang Lianghou, to no avail.
"I have been trying to get in touch with them since [Wednesday] evening, but they went incommunicado all of a sudden," she said.
'He should be free'
Rights lawyer Lin Qilei said he had also gone to the prison, along with fellow activist Wang Qiaoling, wife of rights lawyer Li Heping.
"When we got there there were a lot of plainclothes police at the prison gates, along with [various other] cops," Lin said. "Wang Qiaoling went to speak with them, and ask if Jiang Tianyong had actually been released yet."
"After we'd waited a very long time, someone came out and said he had already left," he said. "We think perhaps that Jiang Tianyong is being held under the control of state security police alongside his sister and father."
"He should be free; he served his sentence ... instead, he got out of the visible prison, and now he's in an invisible prison," Lin said.
Wang Qiaoling said it was fairly clear that the authorities didn't want Jiang or his close family members communicating with the outside world.
"Someone who gets out of jail ought to be free, but not only is Jiang Tianyong not free; his sister and family have also lost their liberty," she said. "They are being held by [state security police], because they don't want them contacting anyone else."
U.S.-based legal activist Chen Guangcheng said Jiang's treatment closely mirrors his own at the hands of the authorities in the eastern province of Shandong.
"When I was released by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party, I walked out of the small prison, and straight into the big prison," Chen said in a commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service. "After they sent me home, they detained me and my family illegally."
He said many other Chinese political prisoners have been similarly treated at the end of their jail terms, citing the cases of Hu Jia, ethnic Mongolian activist Hada, and rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng.
"The situation of Jiang Tianyong and his family is worrying, and requires us to continue to pay close attention," Chen wrote.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.