China releases artist Ai Weiwei on bail

By Jamil Anderlini and Leslie Hook in Beijing

Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist, has been released on bail after more than two and a half months in custody.

“I’m OK; I’m out and I’m with my family now and happy,” Mr Ai told the Financial Times. According to the conditions of his bail the outspoken artist and political activist is forbidden from speaking to the media

“We can sit here in silence together on the phone but we cannot speak a word,” Mr Ai told a reporter from the FT.

State media quoted the Beijing police department as saying he was released because of “his good attitude in confessing his crimes” and because he suffers from a “chronic disease”. Mr Ai, 53, suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.

The Chinese government alleges Mr Ai evaded taxes but his family members and supporters say his detention has more to do with his outspoken and persistent criticism of the ruling Communist party and his internet-enabled political activism.

Mr Ai was detained at Beijing’s international airport on April 3 as he was preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong.

A year earlier, Mr Ai told the Financial Times that state security agents had warned him they would throw him out of the country or charge him with unspecified crimes if he did not cease his public criticism of human rights abuses.

The very brief report from state media on Wednesday quoted police saying Mr Ai was released in part because he had “repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded.”

The report claimed that Beijing Fake Cultural Development, a company Mr Ai controlled, had evaded a ‘huge amount’ of tax and intentionally destroyed accounting documents.

“It is very difficult to understand [what exactly Mr Ai is being charged with]. His family was never informed properly and we couldn’t’ tell what was going on with him,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a renowned human rights lawyer and friend of Mr Ai’s. “Perhaps he himself is unclear [on what charges he faces].”

Mr Ai’s artistic work continued to be exhibited all over the world even as he languished in detention in an undisclosed location somewhere near Beijing.

His family was never told of his whereabouts or of any charges against him and his wife was only allowed to see him once during the 80 days he spent in captivity.

Mr Ai’s detention came in the midst of what rights groups have called the worst repression in China since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Dozens of lawyers and activists have been detained or simply “disappeared” because of their work protecting human rights or advocating peaceful political reforms.

The wave of repression began late last year following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and intensified in the wake of anonymous calls on the internet in February for a “jasmine revolution” in China to match the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mr Ai’s plight prompted an international outcry and the Chinese government came under intense pressure from governments, commentators and artistic groups from all over the world.

His fate and that of other dissidents was a key topic of discussion during a Sino-European human rights dialogue held late last week in Beijing. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is about to embark on a European tour at the end of this week and China has in the past timed the release of political prisoners to coincide with important diplomatic visits or meetings.

Friends and supporters expressed delight at Mr Ai’s release on bail although they remained sceptical that the government has decided to let him go free.

The terms of bail for dissidents in China often include a stipulation barring the person from speaking to media. Mr Ai’s mobile phone was on Wednesday night at around 11.30pm after having been switched off since his detention but Mr Ai did not answer repeated calls.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.

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