'Freed' dissident's fate still unknown

An activist who campaigned for Inner Mongolia's independence from China appears to have been released from prison after a 15-year term but is probably still being detained elsewhere, according to a relative.

While separatist activism among Mongolians living in Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia is not well known, it is an issue for Beijing, which fears the spread of the violent ethnic unrest that has hit Tibet and Xinjiang in recent years.

The 56-year-old activist, Hada, who like many ethnic Mongolians uses just one name, was scheduled to be released last Friday but had not surfaced, said his sister-in-law, Naraa. She said a compact disc containing five digital photographs of Hada with his wife and son was delivered to her on Sunday by a man who refused to identify himself. The photographs appeared authentic and current, she said, and showed the family apparently eating together in a room that did not look familiar.

"We felt a little happier when we received the photos, for a while," Naraa said. "But until now he still hasn't come back and he hasn't phoned us yet, so we think he probably still doesn't have his freedom yet."

Hada helped found the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, which wants to set up an independent nation. His bookstore in the Inner Mongolian capital, Hohhot, became the centre of the movement. Hada was jailed in 1996 on charges of separatism and spying.

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