Beijing human rights lawyer Zhang Kai, detained last August after he gave legal advice to dozens of Protestant churches facing the demolition of their crosses, has been released from detention and sent back to his birthplace in the northern region of Inner Mongolia in what rights lawyers slammed as a "cover-up" bid by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Zhang, who was initially detained on Aug. 25, 2015 ahead of a scheduled meeting with U.S. religious freedom ambassador David Saperstein, had been held for six months under "residential surveillance" in an unknown location on suspicion of "endangering state secrets" and "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
In a Feb. 25 televised "confession," Zhang said he had confessed to his "crimes."
Soon after his arrival in Inner Mongolia, Zhang, whose professional life is in Beijing, made a brief statement via the smartphone messaging app WeChat in a similar vein.
"I have arrived home safely in Inner Mongolia," the message read. "I am very grateful to everyone who showed concern during this time, and who supported members of my family."
Zhang was taken away from Xialing Church in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where he had been helping around 100 congregations oppose the province-wide demolition of "illegal" crosses on church roofs.
Chinese media aired footage of Zhang on Feb. 25 "confessing" to the charges, and accused U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid of supporting him.
While his release has been widely welcomed, there are concerns that Zhang's apparent freedom may not be all that it appears.
Zhang's defense lawyer Li Guisheng said his client's release is unlikely to be unconditional.
"His so-called confession was ridiculous, but if you confess and you say you don't want a lawyer, then you will be treated in a completely different way," Li said.
"That is rather odd, given that this is supposed to be a country ruled by law."
Li said he has yet to see any official documents linked to Zhang's case, but said it is likely he has been released on "bail," which often involves regular surveillance and other barriers to resuming a detainee's previous lifestyle.
Bob Fu, who heads the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said further details about the conditions of Zhang's release have yet to emerge.
"Zhang Kai is a bold human rights lawyer and a defender of the rule of law and religious freedom, and is completely innocent," Fu said in a statement on the group's website.
He called on the Chinese government to release all other detained religious leaders, human rights lawyers, and activists, including rights attorneys Li Heping and Wang Yu, church leader Hu Shigen, and pastors Li Guozhi (Yang Hua), Bao Guohua, and Gu Yuese.
Zhang's sister Zhang Yan said she had a brief phone conversation with him on Thursday.
"He is OK, at least that's what he said," she said. "It was a brief phone chat."
"There are probably more formalities to go through ... [but] I'm in Beijing, not with him, and ... I don't really know much about the details right now."
Clampdown on protests
Rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who has been following Zhang's case closely, said the lawyer was probably released from detention due to a lack of evidence.
"I think it's to do with the fact that they don't have any evidence against him," Liu told RFA. "They detained him to clamp down on the cross demolition [protests]."
"They could have converted his detention to a formal arrest, but ... from a legal point of view, I don't think they had enough to make those charges stand up," he said.
"They have already achieved their goal. By holding him for so long, they have managed to suppress the whole affair, and he was probably released because of huge concern for his case, both here in China and internationally," Liu added.
Zhang's formal detention came amid a province-wide crackdown on churches and an urban "improvement" campaign which has seen crosses removed from dozens of buildings around Zhejiang's Wenzhou city, known as China's Jerusalem for its high concentration of Christian believers.
Earlier this year, Zhejiang Protestant pastors and married couple Bao Guohua and Xing Wenxiang of the Holy Love Christian church were sentenced to 14 and 12 years' imprisonment respectively by the Wucheng District People's Court in Zhejiang's Jinhua city.
They were both found guilty of "encroachment," "running an illegal business," "disturbing public order," and "concealing financial records."
The sentences came after the authorities detained at least 16 pastors and other church members in and around Wenzhou during confrontations with the authorities over the cross removal program.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.