The police in China arrested a prominent activist who had been fleeting for weeks and criticized President Xi Jinping's handling of the hiding coronavirus epidemic, a rights group said Tuesday.
Anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong was arrested on Saturday after being on the run since December, according to Amnesty International.
China's ruling Communist Party has severely restricted civil liberties since Xi took power in 2012 and rounded up lawyers, labor activists, and even Marxist students.
The death of a whistleblowing doctor earlier this month, which was reprimanded by the police for raising the deadly new virus alarm before he died of it, triggered rare calls for political reform and freedom of speech.
"The Chinese government's fight against the corona virus has in no way distracted them from their ongoing general campaign to suppress all votes," said Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, in an emailed statement.
Another source, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Xu was arrested in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The Guangzhou police did not respond to requests for comments.
Xu went into hiding after the coronavirus crisis broke up in December a gathering of intellectuals discussing political reforms in the east coast city of Xiamen, Fujian province.
According to rights groups, over a dozen lawyers and activists have been arrested or disappeared after the Xiamen meeting, and Xu's detention appears to be linked to his presence at the meeting, Poon said.
However, Xu continued to post rights issues on Twitter while escaping.
On February 4, Xu published an article urging Xi to resign and criticized his leadership on a number of issues, including the US-China trade war, the protests against Hong Kong democracy, and the coronavirus epidemic almost 1,900 people have been killed.
"Medical care is scarce, hospitals are full of patients, and a large number of infected people cannot be diagnosed," he wrote. "It's a mess."
"The outbreak of the corona virus shows how important values such as freedom of expression and transparency are – the exact values that Xu has long advocated," Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
But Xu's disappearance shows how the Chinese state "persists in its old way" by "silencing its critics," she said.
Xu, who started a movement that called for more transparency among senior officials, previously served a four-year prison term for organizing an "illegal gathering" from 2013 to 2017.
"The fact that he was a refugee for so many days while he continued to speak was a challenge in itself for (Chinese authorities)," said Hua Ze, a long-time friend of Xu who told AFP that she had lost contact with the Chinese activists on Saturday morning.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)