BEIJING, JUNE 6 -- The Chinese government today announced the release of 97 more people imprisoned without formal charge after last spring's student-led democratic uprising, including two well-known student activist leaders.
It was the third general prisoner release here in the last half-year and was viewed by Western diplomats as part of an effort by Beijing to counter international and domestic criticism of the government's human-rights record. A group of 573 prisoners was released on Jan. 18, and 211 more on May 10.
In all three cases, authorities described those freed as "lawbreakers," even though they apparently had never been charged with any crime, and characterized the releases as acts of leniency. A spokesman for China's Public Security Ministry said that those freed today had "pleaded guilty and voluntarily confessed their wrongdoings and expressed a willingness to repent."
Among only five of the 97 identified by name were Zhou Fengsuo, a student of physics from Beijing's Qinghua University who headed the broadcast service that blared out news and information to democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square last spring. Sources said that Zhou, 22, had been held for nearly a year at Qincheng prison for political prisoners north of Beijing.
Also freed were 19 other students, including Xiong Wei, 24, another democracy movement leader from Qinghua University. Both Zhou and Xiong had been on a police list of 21 most-wanted student activists, five of whom escaped abroad. At least seven on the list are still in prison.
Wang Dan, 23, the most widely known student leader, remains in isolation at Qincheng and may face charges of "counterrevolutionary crimes," sources said. The security ministry spokesman said that those still in prison "who refuse to repent will be punished strictly in accordance with the law."
Two other freed prisoners identified by name were Chen Qiwei, a Shanghai professor of economics who was accused of advising student demonstrators, and Yang Yongzhan, a Hong Kong citizen studying in Shanghai who allegedly helped organize student protests. Yang, 20, was allowed to return to Hong Kong, where his detention had become a major issue.
But release from prison is not likely to mean full civic freedom for the suspects. Many of those freed previously have found their activities severely restricted under what amounts to indefinite parole and police supervision. Some have received unfavorable job assignments or can find no work at all.
In announcing the May 10 prisoner release, a ministry spokesman said 431 persons were still under investigation, but he did not indicate how many others had already been tried and sentenced to prison, or how many had been sent to so-called "labor reeducation" camps. Under the Chinese penal system, police officials can assign arrestees to labor reeducation camps without trial for up to three years.
Despite the three general releases, Western human-rights monitors believe that thousands are still held for involvement in last year's democracy demonstrations.