Authorities at remote Shaya Prison in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang on Thursday released prominent dissident and rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng at the end of a jail term of nearly three years.
But sources close to Gao, 50, suggest that he remains under close surveillance, probably by China's state security police.
Hu Jia, a Beijing-based rights activist and long-time friend of Gao, said via Twitter that Gao and his brother had arrived back at a relative's home in Urumqi after being reunited on his release.
Gao was planning to stay in Urumqi to seek urgent dental treatment, before flying back to his hometown in the northern province of Shaanxi, Hu wrote.
Meanwhile, Gao's lawyer, Lai Xiongbin, said he had been prevented from meeting his client outside the jail.
"I had planned to meet Gao today, but the relevant departments had a chat with me and informed me that I wouldn't be allowed to meet him," Lai told RFA on Thursday.
Gao's brother Gao Zhiyi had arrived in Xinjiang on Aug. 1 to meet with him, and was waiting for him in remote Shaya county, where the jail is located.
But Gao Zhiyi declined to be interviewed when contacted by RFA on Wednesday, saying only: "Don't say anything, don't inquire ... it's really inconvenient," before hanging up the phone.
"Inconvenient" is a term frequently used by activists to denote potential monitoring of phone calls or close surveillance by police.
Fear of detention
Gao's wife, Geng He, and fellow activists say they fear the authorities may decide to whisk Gao off into secret detention when his term is up, given the sensitive nature of the cases he defended.
Geng, who escaped to the U.S. with her son and daughter in January 2009 following years of harassment and abuse by authorities, said she was "extremely worried" about what would happen to her husband after his release.
After a brief phone conversation with Gao's brother on Thursday, Geng said she feared something "wasn't right" with the family.
"He said they were on their way back [to Urumqi], and I asked if he could put me on to speak to Gao Zhisheng but he said no, and hung up the phone," Geng said.
"After that, I couldn't get through. I don't think this feels right ... his attitude was very stiff ... he didn't explain what could easily have been explained in a few words," she added.
Earlier reports from activists and relatives suggested the family is still under close surveillance by China's state security police.
"We can tell you for certain that [his brother's] phone is being tapped, and that the authorities have certainly been in touch with them to warn them not to give interviews, or else," Hu Jia told RFA in an interview recorded ahead of Gao's release.
"[Gao Zhiyi] has come under huge pressure from the authorities in the past, who have threatened his kids, and he is in a very tough place right now."
Hu said much uncertainty still remains. "You never know what's going to happen on day two," he said.
"As a political prisoner in China ... one can be released from a small prison to the wider prison of society," Hu said.
He said the team in charge of Gao's case led by Beijing state security police officer Sun Di was "certain" to have sent officers to Shaya ahead of Gao's release.
"They will want to do their utmost to limit the impact of Gao Zhisheng's release from jail," Hu said.
Once a prominent lawyer lauded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Gao fell foul of the government after he defended some of China's most vulnerable people, including Christians, coal miners, and followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In 2006, the Beijing authorities arrested Gao and handed him a three-year jail term for "inciting subversion" that was later suspended for five years. But over the following five years, Gao repeatedly suffered forced disappearances and torture.
In December 2011, China's official Xinhua news agency said in a terse announcement that Gao had been imprisoned for three years for repeatedly violating his terms of probation.
The announcement drew strong criticism from the United Nations, United States and the European Union, all of which have repeatedly called for Gao's release, and by overseas rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.