It is not unusual for a husband or wife of a jailed political prisoner to campaign for their spouse's release. But the wife of Liu Yao, a Chinese human rights defense lawyer recently condemned to a 20-year sentence in the southern province of Guangdong, has taken another recourse: Lai Wei'e has applied to be allowed to live inside prison with her jailed husband, Radio Free Asia's Chinese website reports.

Liu Yao had gained prominence by defending local farmers whose land had been grabbed illegally by unscrupulous officials. He was first detained in 2007, and subsequently sentenced to four years in jail. In 2015, he was once again accused of crimes, including extortion, fraud and child-trafficking because his wife, suffering from infertility, had adopted a child.

Beijing has used many forms of harassment to try to silence the defenders of rights.

The particularly harsh sentencing, which was upheld in appeal in November, was widely regarded as a reprisal by the corrupt officials his cases had targeted.

Lai Wei'e petitioned the court late last month to be allowed to join her husband in prison. ''Though my husband is convicted to imprisonment, the law, however, doesn't specify that married prisoners be deprived of continued emotional communication and cohabitation with their spouses," she wrote in her request.

Lai Wei'e and her husband Liu Yao — Photo: RFA

Chang Weiping, the attorney acting for Liu, told Radio Free Asia that Lai's application should be granted: "You get sentenced to have your personal freedom limited, not to lose other basic human rights," Chang said, adding that the couple "should not be deprived of their emotional exchanges and physiological needs."

Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a growing crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers. According to a report published in September by Human Rights Watch, Beijing has used many forms of harassment — surveillance, house arrest, revocation of licenses, physical assault, illegal detention, coercion, misinterpretation of the law, and the imprisonment of lawyers — to try to silence the defenders of rights and to eliminate civil society.

China was widely criticized last July when jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died from cancer, after being denied health treatment abroad. The activist's wife, the poet and artist Liu Xia, has been forced to live under house arrest and constant surveillance.

See more from Culture / Society here