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China's Last Tiananmen Prisoner Set to be Freed, But Frail

FILE: Hundreds of thousands of people, seeking political and economic reforms, crowded Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square, May 17, 1989.
FILE: Hundreds of thousands of people, seeking political and economic reforms, crowded Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square, May 17, 1989.

China's last-known prisoner held in relation to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests will reportedly be released Saturday, but he'll face freedom a frail and mentally ill man, a rights group and a fellow former inmate said.

Miao Deshun's expected release follows an 11-month sentence reduction, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for the rights of political prisoners in China.

The 51-year-old former factory worker is severely ill after spending more than half his life behind bars, said Dui Hua's executive director, John Kamm, in an email.

Tanks and troops converged in Beijing to quash pro-democracy protests on the night of June 3-4, 1989, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. Authorities later jailed more than 1,600 people around the country for crimes linked to the demonstrations. Nearly three decades later, young Chinese know little of the events that marked the last major popular challenge to Communist rule in the mainland and remain a taboo.

Dui Hua said in May that Miao was due to be released Saturday. The date could not be independently verified. The Ministry of Public Security and the Beijing Higher People's Court did not respond to faxed requests for comment.

Miao was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in 1989 for throwing a basket into a burning tank, an act considered arson by the court. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1991, and further reduced over the years.

“No one other than prison officials or other prisoners in the ward for sick and disabled prisoners have seen him for many years,” Kamm said. Miao suffers from hepatitis B and schizophrenia and is being held at the Yanqing Prison, a facility in a Beijing suburb that has a ward for elderly and ill prisoners, Dui Hua said.

During his time at the Beijing No. 1 Prison, Miao refused to accept the charges leveled against him or sign declarations of repentance, according to a former fellow inmate, Wu Wenjian.

Wu, then a factory worker, was also serving a sentence for involvement in the Tiananmen protest. He spent four years in the same prison units as Miao.

“As time passed, Miao became very stubborn and refused to do hard labor, refused re-education, refused to write repentance letters,” Wu said in an interview. “That's why he was moved to another unit reserved for the `diehards.”'

For that, Miao often endured heavier punishments than other inmates, and prison guards frequently beat him and tortured him with electric batons, Wu said.

“It is already a miracle that he is alive. We all thought he would not make it out of this,” Wu said.

According to Dui Hua, Miao has spent time in solitary confinement and has had no contact with the outside world for many years. He was transferred to Yanqing in 2003.

China has never fully disclosed what happened when the military crushed the 1989 weeklong protests, which authorities branded a “counterrevolutionary riot.” The decades since have seen breakneck economic growth and the ruling Communist Party relinquish much of its day-to-day control over many aspects of society. The party retains a tight grip on dissent that has intensified under President Xi Jinping.