A Paris-based press freedom group has called for the release of award-winning citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, whose family says she is close to death in Shanghai Women's Prison.
Zhang was sentenced exactly one year ago to four years' imprisonment by the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, which found her guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
"Zhang, 38, is close to death after a partial hunger strike she has been conducting to protest her innocence," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement marking the anniversary of her jailing, which came after she reported from the front lines of the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic in the central city of Wuhan.
Zhang's family members were last allowed to visit her last month, reporting that she weighed less than 40 kilograms with a height of 1.77 meters, and couldn't walk or raise her head without assistance.
"Zhang Zhan courageously risked her life reporting in Wuhan at a time when very little information was available on the mode of transmission and severity of Covid-19, and she should have been celebrated as a hero instead of being detained," RSF East Asia Bureau chief Cédric Alviani said.
He called on the international community to step up political pressure on Beijing to grant Zhang her request for medical parole "and ensure that she is released before it is too late."
It said several prominent Chinese journalists, editors and citizen journalists are currently at risk of death in Chinese prisons, including investigative reporter and RSF World Press Freedom Laureate Huang Qi, Swedish publisher Gui Minhai and Uyghur website editor Ilham Tohti, recipient of the Václav Havel Prize and Sakharov Prize.
Gansu-based rights activist Li Dawei said the last family contact Zhang was allowed was in late November 2021.
"I spoke to Zhang Zhan's mother on Dec. 14 or 15, and she told me she saw Zhang Zhan at the end of November, and that her condition was still the same as before," Li told RFA.
"She needed support to walk around, and she was still in poor health, and she had been sent to hospital at the end of October," he said. "They wouldn't let family members read the clinical report from the hospital."
He added: "Her brother doesn't seem to want to be contact with me any more. I can only guess that the family are under pressure [from the authorities], and have to comply with the authorities' demands for Zhang Zhan's sake."
Li said he is now himself under surveillance by the state security police.
"I had planned to go to Beijing on Dec. 13, but I was prevented from getting on the train by state security police and the railway police at the train station," he said. "I used to get targeted before the Zhang Zhan case, but it's even stricter now."
Li says he isn't optimistic about the outcome for Zhang.
"If she had changed her mind and decided to cooperate with the authorities, she could have gotten a lighter sentence, including administrative punishment or non-custodial sanctions," he said.
"The government has made a huge mistake, and is in serious violation of the law, and so Zhang refuses to give in, therefore there is no way they will release her," he said.
Eeling Chiu, who heads the Taiwan branch of Amnesty International, also called for Zhang's immediate release.
"All she did was report on the COVID-19 situation ... which was very important, and something the public have a right to know about to prevent the pandemic from spreading," Chiu said. "She didn't break any laws."
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gao Feng.