Zhao was detained more than a year ago on charges of disrupting public order after he applied to set up an independent trade union representing more than 300 workers in more than 20 companies.
His wife Deng Yongxia died of the auto-immune disorder lupus on Aug. 31, never having been allowed to visit Zhao in the detention center.
"When she was very seriously ill, we went to the court to apply for a single visit permit, but the court didn't approve it," Zhao's brother said.
"On the night she died, we went again to ask the court to allow him to see her one last time, and they refused again, saying that no such rules existed."
"Their eldest child has just got into senior high school, and the second is only three years old, and lives with my parents [who are] in their eighties now," Zhao's brother said.
He called on Shaanxi authorities to release Zhao as soon as possible. "He has been detained for more than a year now," he said.
Belief in innocence
Deng was admitted to the hospital twice this year after a period of deep depression and insomnia. She died of kidney failure and internal bleeding triggered by systemic lupus erythematosus, doctors said.
Deng maintained a staunch view of her husband's innocence during an interview in June, when she was admitted to the hospital a second time.
"There are elderly and very young people in our family. I can't get out much. There was a time when I went regularly to the detention center to ask to see [Zhao]. I went maybe seven or eight times. It didn't matter what I said; they still wouldn't let me see him," Deng said at the time.
"They wouldn't let me give him money, or take his laundry or bring a change of clothes."
"I couldn't sleep after he went there. I didn't sleep for seven or eight months. The kids are exhausted too. His mother's health is poor as well, so in the middle of that, my body just gave out," she said.
According to Zhao's lawyer, identified by his surname Chen, Zhao's case had been bounced back and forth between the police, the state prosecutor's office, and the court for months, with the prosecutor calling on the police to present more evidence.
"I haven't been allowed to read the evidence or to visit my client," Chen said. "The procuratorate [prosecutor] says the paperwork isn't ready and that it's not 'convenient' for me to read it."
"If I go to the court, they tell me that the case is still under investigation," he said. "They also said there was some kind of a meeting higher up to discuss the case."
"To this day, they haven't brought a case [against Zhao]. Investigations are supposed to take seven days."
An official who answered the direct line number given to Chen for Zhao's case at the Xincheng district court in Shaanxi's provincial capital, Xian, said the number had been changed.
"There's a new phone number now," he said. "The new directory hasn't been printed yet."
Chen said no one had answered repeated calls he made to the court last week.
"I have been thinking that perhaps the court has been sitting on the case because they don't think it will stand up," Chen added.
Pushing labor reform
Zhao Dongmin was arrested in August 2009 for "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order."
A former left-wing organizer of labor rights group Gongweihui, Zhao applied on behalf of the group to the Shaanxi provincial trade union and the Shaanxi provincial party for registration as a study group.
Receiving no reply, they applied again to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in the same month Zhao was arrested. The Shaanxi provincial civil affairs bureau then stepped in and issued an order banning the study group.
"The 'Application to Establish a Shaanxi Union Rights Defense Representative Congress' is a strongly worded demand by the working class to the Party to strengthen its leadership over the working class," Zhao wrote in his application letter to the ACFTU.
In it, he argued that the study group was necessary to prevent exploitation of the workers by factory management.
The Hong Kong-based rights group China Labour Bulletin (CLB), which has long criticized the ACFTU as being mired in bureaucracy and unable to function as a body that represents China's workforce, said that, in response, "union officials obfuscated and claimed there was a limit to what they could do."
But behind closed doors, they were moving quickly to make sure that Zhao's influence was quashed as soon as possible.
"They were far more concerned with trying to neutralize the organizing ability of the lawyer-turned-labor rights advocate, Zhao Dongmin," CLB said in a news item on its website.
"The union officials at the meeting all stressed that Zhao Dongmin should not be allowed to represent the workers or get directly involved in their struggles," it said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.