Artist's Release Highlights Crackdown

Rights groups question arbitrary actions of Chinese authorities.

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Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves to reporters outside his studio in Beijing, June 23, 2011.

While rights activists have welcomed the release of prominent Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei after 80 days of detention, they say the manner of his detention was arbitrary and part of a broader campaign to silence dissent.

Fellow activist Zhao Lianhai, whose child was one of 300,000 made ill in a scandal in which infant formula milk was laced with the industrial chemical melamine, welcomed the news of Ai's release, but said the authorities had acted outside the law.

"The government has never acted within regular legal process throughout [Ai's detention]," Zhao said. "This is detain him for nearly 80 days."

"Under the terms of his bail agreement he can be redetained at any time...and that is my concern."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday that Ai was still under investigation.

"Without permission... he is not allowed to leave his area of residence," Hong told reporters on Thursday.


Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was concerned about the arbitrary manner of Ai's detention and continuing controls on his freedom of speech and movement.

"Ai was forcibly disappeared on April 3 at Beijing Capital Airport and his detention was acknowledged only on April 7," the group said in a statement on Wednesday.

"He remained in police custody under “residential surveillance” at an unknown location for 80 days. He was denied access to his lawyer, and his wife was allowed to visit him only once on May 15, 42 days into his detention," it said.

But it said the artist's release was probably the result of widespread international pressure on Beijing, and a vocal campaign for his release.

"The Chinese government’s decision to arrest Ai Weiwei was political, and so is his release,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

"But it is also an example of how international pressure works, since Beijing was paying a high cost to its reputation for his detention."

The Chinese authorities released Ai on bail pending trial for "economic crimes," having secured a promise from him to repay a large sum of money the government says was due in taxes, official media reported.

Ai's mother Gao Ying said she was shocked at his appearance when he first emerged from detention.

"His belly has got much thinner and he had 80 days' facial hair growth, so he looked like some kind of wild man," Gao said.

"He said he was fairly reasonably treated in detention, and that they showed him some courtesy," she added.

'Confession' questioned

Ai had been investigated "according to law" under charges of suspected economic crimes, and the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Co., which he controls, had been found to have engaged in deliberate tax evasion amounting to very large sums, Xinhua news agency said.

It said the decision was made "in view of the fact that Ai Weiwei confessed his crime, showed a good attitude, and of the fact that he suffers from chronic illness, and considering that he has offered many times of his own accord to pay back the money owed."

The Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders said it was concerned about exactly how Ai's "confession" was elicited.

"Given the length of the time he was held incommunicado, light must be shed on the circumstances in which this confession was obtained," the group said in a statement on Thursday.

"His release does not mean the end of his problems," it warned.

Ai was quoted by several media outlets and Twitter users as saying that he was unable to speak to the media under the terms of his release.

Human Rights Watch said it was likely that Ai would face restrictions on his movements and be required to report to the police regularly.

Chinese authorities at times use “economic crimes,” and specifically tax evasion charges, to try to silence dissenters, rights activists have said.

Human Rights Watch warned that many more Chinese activists remain "disappeared."

"In the past six months, the Chinese government has disappeared and/or arbitrarily detained dozens of activists, writers, lawyers, and others," the group said.

"Upon their release, several have retreated into uncharacteristic silence and seclusion, leading to concerns that they have been threatened with further abuses if they speak out."


It estimated that at least 10 others less well-known than Ai had been victims of enforced disappearances since mid-February.

"They remain incommunicado, their whereabouts unknown, and thus are at high risk of torture in custody," the group said.

Ai's disappearance on April 3, with no formal documentation, sparked a campaign by activists and art galleries and museums worldwide for his release.

“We are greatly relieved to learn that Ai Weiwei has been released,” said Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, which helped launch an online petition for Ai's release.

"While the Guggenheim has no comment on the circumstances surrounding Ai Weiwei’s release, we will of course continue to follow this situation and hope for a complete and satisfactory resolution for artistic expression," Armstrong said.

Ai was named recently by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

His detention has drawn criticism from the United States, Australia, Britain, France, and Germany, as well as from Amnesty International and other international rights groups.

Reported by Qiao Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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