China Aid has confirmed with relatives of Zhang Kai that the human rights attorney was released on Wednesday (March 23) after his arrest in August 2015 for defending churches.
Zhang wrote on social media that he returned to his home in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, on Wednesday, the advocacy organization said. The human rights attorney, who had defended some 100 churches damaged by a campaign to demolish crosses in Zhejiang Province, was arrested on Aug. 25 just before he was to meet with U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein.
Terms of his release were uncertain. He had been sentenced to six months of residential surveillance at a "black jail," where prisoners are held incommunicado at a secret location. On Feb. 25 he appeared on state television stating a "confession" to disrupting social order and endangering state security that many believe was coerced.
Zhejiang authorities subsequently charged him with "endangering state secrets" and "gathering a crowd to disturb the public" and criminally detained him, according to a China Aid press statement.
"I have already safely arrived home in Inner Mongolia," Zhang said in his message, according to China Aid. "I am thankful for all friends who were concerned about me during this time and who looked after and comforted my family members."
China Aid head Bob Fu said he was a close friend of Zhang.
"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 press statement. "I appeal to Chinese authorities to release other arbitrarily imprisoned religious leaders, human rights lawyers and defenders, such as those arrested in July of 2015, including attorneys Li Heping and Wang Yu, church leader Hu Shigen, and pastors Li Guozhi (Yang Hua), Bao Guohua and Gu Yuese."
Pastor Bao Guohua of Holy Love Christian Church in Jinhua received a sentence of 14 years in prison, and his wife Xing Wenxiang 12 years, after they were convicted of "corruption, financial crimes and gathering people to disturb social order," according to The New York Times, citing the Feb. 26 Zhejiang Daily, the province's official newspaper. Their son, Bao Chenxing, was handed a three-year prison sentence.
The three were arrested last August after they publicly criticized the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) policy of demolishing crosses on churches in Zhejiang; area Christians believe they are being persecuted for their protests. The court also reportedly ordered 600,000 renminbi (US$92,000) be confiscated from Bao, and that he pay a fine of $15,300; confiscation of $92,000 from his wife, and a fine of nearly $14,000, were also ordered.
Nine other members of the church staff were also reportedly convicted and received lesser sentences. The previous week, authorities detained 16 pastors in the greater Wenzhou area over the removal of crosses.
Bao is one of eight pastors of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches detained. On Jan. 27, Gu Yuese, an official with the China Christian Council (CCC) and pastor of China's largest TSPM church, was arrested and is reportedly detained in a "black jail" on charges of corruption. Pastor of Chongyi Church in the Zhejiang capital, Hangzhou, Gu was detained after criticizing CCP policy in Zhejiang, where the government has demolished the crosses of some 1,800 churches.
The government has replaced the leadership at the Chongyi Church.
On Jan. 29, authorities also arrested on "corruption" charges CCC Chairman Li Guanzhong in Pujiang County, Zhejiang, who served as senior pastor of Puyang Christian Church in Jinhua. Li and his wife, Zhang Shuzhen, are also reportedly being held in a "black jail," where they have no access to legal representation. Li also had protested CCP demolition of crosses in the province, including his own church's, and had objected to TSPM churches flying the Chinese flag.
The government has also brought formal charges against nearly 20 human rights lawyers who had worked against the demolitions in the province, and authorities have broadcast coerced "confessions" from several of them.
Regarding Zhang's case, Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said his advocacy group welcomed the release and restated their call to "allow Zhang his freedom without condition, upholding his right to freedom of movement and association, and all the rights and freedoms guaranteed under international and Chinese law."
He reiterated concern that other human rights lawyers, along with Zhejiang pastors, remain in detention.
"We urge the Chinese government to protect the rights and safety of those who defend freedom of religion of belief and other human rights in China," he said.