An anti-corruption activist and civil rights lawyer in China has been arrested after he criticised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s management of the novel coronavirus outbreak and asked him to step down, AFP reported on Tuesday citing a rights group. The toll in the outbreak rose to 1,868 on Tuesday as 98 more people died on the Chinese mainland.

The activist Xu Zhiyong was arrested on Saturday after absconding since December. “Xu has been in the authorities’ sights ever since he attended a meeting of human rights activists in Xiamen in December, and he has since criticized President Xi’s handling of the coronavirus crisis,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “The detention of Xu Zhiyong shows that the Chinese government’s battle against the coronavirus has in no way diverted it from its ongoing general campaign to crush all dissenting voices and its ruthless assault on freedom of expression.”

The human rights group said that Xu had now joined a set of people who have been targeted for attending the meeting in Xiamen. Some of them “currently languish in detention under constant risk of torture or other ill-treatment”, it added.

“Xu Zhiyong and his fellow detainees have committed no crime,” Amnesty International’s statement read. “They have been targeted merely for their peaceful activism, and the Chinese authorities must immediately and unconditionally release them.”

The activist’s friends have confirmed to NPR that he was detained around 6 pm on February 15 detention in Payu district of Guangzhou city of China. He had managed to stay on the run for 50 days as the police began picking up other activists since December last year.

Despite being on the run, Xu would regularly keep his blog and Twitter updated with politically charged commentary on recent events. In a post on February 4, he had asked the Chinese president to resign from his post, and criticised his handling of the outbreak along with his other policies.

Xu has worked for various disadvantaged groups, and co-founded “New Citizens’ Movement”, a group of activists and lawyers working for civil rights protections and rule of law. He has been jailed before for his peaceful activism, and spent four years in prison before being released in 2017.

On February 6, Li Wenliang, the doctor who was among the first to warn the world about a possible novel coronavirus outbreak, died of the infection. Li was one of eight medical professionals targeted by the police for trying to blow the whistle on the deadly virus. The doctor reportedly got infected last month after treating a woman with glaucoma who was carrying the novel coronavirus. His death had sparked national grief and outrage.

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