Radio Free Asia journalist Shohret Hoshur attends a congressional hearing on “Urging China's President Xi to Stop State-Sponsored Human Rights Abuses,” on Sept. 18 in Washington. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Sometimes the government in Beijing surprises people, by responding to international pressure over human rights.

This week, China unexpectedly released from detention two of three brothers of a reporter for Radio Free Asia (RFA) who is based in Washington. All three brothers had been held since the summer of 2014, and their case had attracted significant attention abroad, especially in the United States.

It is the fourth time this year that China has appeared to respond to an international outcry and pulled back from exacting the harshest possible punishments on prominent dissidents.

In April, Beijing released five women’s rights activists who had been detained for planning to distribute leaflets against sexual violence. In November, China freed 71-year-old journalist Gao Yu early on medical parole, with Germany among the countries that had express concerns about her health. This month, a prominent lawyer named Pu Zhiqiang received a suspended sentence — rather than the expected jail term — for sending several tweets mocking the government.

Now comes the release of two of the brothers of Shohret Hoshur, an ethnic Uighur journalist.

Their detention in 2014 was widely seen as an attempt by the Chinese government to intimidate one of the few sources of independent reporting into events in its troubled western region of Xinjiang. The third brother, Tudaxun, was sentenced to a five-year term for endangering state security and remains in prison.

“The United States welcomes the release of Radio Free Asia journalist Shohret Hoshur’s brothers, Shawket and Rexim Hoshur, from detention,” said Anna Richey-Allen, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “The two brothers were detained from August 2014 on vague charges of ‘endangering state security’ and ‘leaking state secrets.’ We have consistently expressed our concern over their confinement.”

The United States, she said, also urges China to release Tudaxun Hoshur.

Shohret Hoshur left China in 1994, having displeased the authorities with his journalism. He has since become a U.S. citizen, and he leads RFA’s coverage of Xinjiang issues, often highlighting human rights abuses there. RFA is financed by the U.S. Congress.

The brothers who have been released, Shawket and Rexim, were detained in August 2014, shortly after holding a telephone conversation with Shohret Hoshur in which they complained about the injustice of Tudaxun’s arrest two months earlier.

They were tried separately in August, although no verdict was issued.

Both were abruptly released to their families in the town of Horgos on Wednesday, said an RFA spokesman, Rohit Mahajan. There were no details about the terms of their release, he said, adding that both men are understood to have lost weight during their detention.

Hoshur insists his brothers are all upstanding members of the community, farmers and merchants with little or no interest in politics. He says that relatives have been harassed by Chinese officials in Xinjiang and that some have even phoned him in the past urging him to leave his job at RFA.

The U.S. government has repeatedly urged China to release all of Hoshur’s brothers. He has met several State Department officials and was among a group of dissidents and their relatives who met Secretary of State John F. Kerry ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September.

That month, he also testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Hoshur went on Facebook “to share the great news that my older and youngest brother have been released in the early morning of December 30 from a detention center in Urumqi.” He thanked the State Department, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the Committee to Protect Journalists, the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors and “fellow journalists” who have continuously followed the case. “Also I want to thank my colleagues at RFA for their support and my friends who stood with me during some very difficult times,” he said.

The release notwithstanding, China is in the midst of its harshest crackdown on free speech and dissent in decades. For each case in which it appears to respond to international pressure, there are other examples in which it does not. This week, a French reporter was expelled from China for her coverage of events in Xinjiang. Prominent dissidents such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo continue to languish in jail, as does moderate Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, sentenced to life in prison last year.

Pu was detained for 19 months before being freed, and he still received a three-year suspended sentence, which prevents him from practicing law for three years. The women’s rights activists still faced police harassment after their release. The cases against all of the Hoshur brothers were so thin as to be almost nonexistent, human rights and legal experts say.

In Beijing, some argue that global pressure on China can be counterproductive, forcing Beijing to dig in its heels and allowing it to label dissidents as stooges of Western powers intent on blocking China’s rise. However, these examples appear to show that international pressure about individual cases can occasionally bear fruit.

“For all the abuses visited upon human rights defenders in China this [past] year, in a handful of cases about which there was considerable domestic and international outrage we saw a somewhat less awful outcome,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

Richardson said that all were cases in which no detention or charge or trial was merited, but she added that the Chinese leadership does not like being confronted — vocally and unambiguously — on such “baseless, absurd” charges. “The point is simply that domestic and international pressure matters in these cases,” she said, “and should in turn inspire courageous, creative and consistent diplomatic efforts in other circumstances, such as those of the Hoshur brothers — and so many others.”

Mahajan called this week’s release welcome news but said RFA remained concerned about other reporters at the organization with families in China. “They could easily find themselves facing the same situation,” he said. “Shohret has had to work under extraordinary pressure for the duration of this process, which unfolded over almost a year and a half. All of us at RFA have admired his professionalism and bravery throughout.”

Shortly after Hoshur broke the news of his brothers’ arrest in January, Tudaxun was moved to a detention center nearer his family in Horgos, suggesting international attention was having an impact.

Human rights groups say China represses the rights, culture and freedom of worship for Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims. The region has been home to long-running separatist unrest, and violence has dramatically increased in the past two years.

China’s government says the violent separatists are motivated by Islamist extremism, but it has made independent reporting from Xinjiang almost impossible by harassing foreign journalists who visit the province and threatening Uighurs who talk to reporters.

RFA was set up by Congress in 1994 to broadcast news that would otherwise not be reported in Asian countries where governments do not allow a free press. It continues to be funded by an annual grant from the Broadcasting Board of Governors.