China releases artist Ai Weiwei on bail
BEIJING, June 22, 2011 (AFP) – Police in Beijing have released high-profile Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on bail after he confessed to tax evasion and because he suffers from a “chronic disease”, state media said Wednesday.
The release of the outspoken activist, who was taken into custody in April during the government’s biggest crackdown on activists in years, was somewhat unexpected, as authorities had suggested he was involved in massive tax fraud.
The detention of the burly avant-garde artist – whose work was on display at London’s Tate Modern gallery this year – sparked an international outcry, with the United States and the European Union leading calls for his release.
Ai, 54, was released because of “his good attitude in confessing his crimes,” his willingness to repay the taxes he owes, and on medical grounds, China’s state Xinhua news agency reported, without explaining his condition.
The report, citing police, said the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., a company controlled by Ai, was found to have “evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents”.
Relatives have said they did not know where the artist was being held after he was taken into custody at Beijing’s international airport on April 3 while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong.
“He has not come back yet. The police haven’t told us he has been released. Journalists called us and told us about the Xinhua report,” Ai’s sister Gao Ge told AFP late Wednesday.
Ai’s mobile was at first switched off, and then rang busy when AFP tried to contact him. The phone of his wife Lu Qing was switched off.
His lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, told AFP he had not yet spoken with Ai.
“I saw the report. He should be going home tonight,” Liu said.
The son of a poet revered by China’s early Communist leaders, Ai helped design the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but has since become a thorn in the government’s side. The bearded artist has angered authorities with his involvement in a number of sensitive activist campaigns and his relentless criticism of the ruling Communist Party.
He probed the collapse of schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, looked into a Shanghai high-rise fire last November that killed dozens, and says police beat him when he tried to testify on behalf of another activist in 2009.
In January, his newly built Shanghai studio was demolished in apparent retaliation for his criticism of city policies, and a month later Ai said his first large solo exhibition in mainland China was cancelled over political sensitivities.
His detention – part of a major government crackdown on dissent, which follows online calls for demonstrations in China to emulate the “Jasmine” protests that have rocked the Arab world – has raised hackles in the West. The United States, Australia, Britain, France and Germany have joined Amnesty International and other rights groups in calling for the artist’s release.
Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Ai’s case showed the power of international pressure but cautioned that it was crucial to monitor the conditions of his release following his “illegal disappearance.”
“We have legitimate cause to be concerned about the conditions,” Kine told AFP. “The Chinese government may impose a bargain that in order to effect his release, he will no longer take a high-profile engagement on issues of human rights.”
Kine said he was also concerned about other Chinese activists in detention, saying that Human Rights Watch believed at least 10 perceived government critics rounded up this year were in secret custody and at risk of torture.
“It’s great that there appears to be some sort of movement in Ai Weiwei’s case, but it’s important to remember that there are also less-famous individuals whose whereabouts are unknown,” he said.
Ai joined Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British actor Colin Firth and Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi this year in Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
# # #
ADDITIONAL IMAGE OF NOTE