BEIJING (AP) _ A former leader of China's 1989 pro-democracy movement said Thursday he was released nine months early from a labor camp.

Zhou Yongjun, who was picked up when he returned from abroad in 1998 to visit his parents, said he was released Monday from a labor camp in southwestern China.

Zhou, 34, had been serving a three-year sentence in Mianyang, a city in Sichuan province. Police can impose such sentences without trial. He was not due for release until December this year.

Zhou also spent two years in prison after Chinese authorities crushed the 1989 movement, then left China and moved to New York City.

He returned to China in December 1998 to visit his elderly mother, and disappeared. Human rights groups later released a letter from Zhou saying he had been sentenced to three years in a labor camp.

Zhou captured world attention that year by kneeling on the steps of the Great Hall of the People beside Tiananmen Square to petition China's communist leaders to acknowledge the student demonstrators.