A citizen journalist who shined a light on Wuhan's plight may die in prison "If she does not make it past the coming winter, I hope the world will remember her as she once was," Zhang Zhan's brother said. She posted videos of Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic.

A citizen journalist who shined a light on the pandemic in Wuhan may die in prison

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to the story of a lawyer turned citizen journalist in China. She posted videos on social media from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, and she may be on the verge of dying in prison. Rights groups say she is not well, and the U.S. government has intensified calls for the Communist Party to release her. NPR's John Ruwitch has her story.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In one of Zhang Zhan's early reports, you can see her arguing with guards at a checkpoint and getting pushed around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHANG ZHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: And in this one, she visits a police station to ask about the investigation into the case of Li Wenliang, the eye doctor who blew the whistle on the pandemic and was punished for it before dying of the disease. Zhang was detained in May 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison for her unsanctioned reports. Last month, Zhang's mother went to the prison where she's being held. Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, says her mother was able to talk with her through a video link.

YAQIU WANG: The visit lasted only like five minutes, and she later told friends that, you know, her daughter was very weak. And she couldn't hold her head up for lack of - stress.

RUWITCH: Zhang has been on a hunger strike. One of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, says she's been refusing to eat or eating very little since she was first detained.

ZHANG KEKE: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He says Zhang believes she's fundamentally innocent, that her detention, arrest and conviction were wrong and that the only way she can protest is to refuse to eat.

K ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: The lawyer says she may not have even eaten one full meal in the past year and a half.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Z ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Zhang's videos from Wuhan showed a site of the outbreak that the ruling Communist Party has tried to suppress - a darker side of the government's heavy-handed lockdown and bungled initial efforts to deal with the outbreak. The party saw her as a risk, according to Wang from Human Rights Watch, and it jailed her for the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble.

WANG: The entire prosecution is a sham. It's a catch-all crimes that the government often uses against critics of the government.

RUWITCH: Zhang, the lawyer, says what's more serious than the conviction is that her life is now threatened.

K ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He hasn't been able to meet her recently, but he says he hopes that she can be persuaded to eat or that she'll be set free on medical parole. This week State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was concerned about Zhang, and he urged China to release her. President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are slated to hold a virtual summit soon. Perhaps her case will come up. Meanwhile, her brother tweeted recently that Zhang, who stands about 5'10", weighs less than 88 pounds now. She's so stubborn, he said, that she may not survive the coming winter. John Ruwitch, NPR News.

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