BEIJING - China has freed one of its longest-serving political prisoners, the ethnic Mongol dissident Hada, who has spent much of the last two decades behind bars, his uncle said on Tuesday.
Beijing fears ethnic unrest in strategic border areas and keeps a tight rein on Inner Mongolia, just as it does on Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west, even though the region is suppposed to have a large measure of autonomy.
"He's not in good health," the dissident's uncle, Haschuluu, told Reuters, adding that Hada's younger brother had told him of the release, which took place on Tuesday morning in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot. He declined to comment further.
Many Mongols in China go by just one name.
Hada was tried behind closed doors in 1996 and jailed for 15 years for separatism, spying and supporting the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, which sought greater rights for China's ethnic Mongols. He says the charges were trumped up.
After being released in December 2010, he had to serve a separate sentence of four years of "deprivation of political rights", mostly in an illegal detention centre in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, his family says.
Hada's wife Xinna, who lives in Hohhot, and their son, Uiles, have also been in and out of detention over the past few years. Reuters was unable to reach either of them by telephone.
Calls to the Inner Mongolia government to seek comment went unanswered.
Amnesty International considered Hada a prisoner of conscience and has expressed fears about his well-being, as have the United States and European Union.
While Hada's release was a positive sign, he was likely to remain closely watched, as commonly happens with dissidents, said Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. "Although he will have more freedom of movement now he's been released, the whole family might be subject to a certain amount of surveillance," Poon said.
Xinna has complained about her husband's poor treatment, and said authorities pressured him this year to divorce her in exchange for an early release.
Decades of migration by the dominant Han have left Chinese Mongols a minority in their own land. Officially, they make up less than a fifth of Inner Mongolia's population of almost 24 million.
In 2011, the Mongol community held demonstrations demanding better protection of its rights and traditions, spurred by the death of a Mongol herder who had been protesting against pollution from a coal mine.