Back To Top

China releases artist Ai Weiwei on bail

Activist’s detention was part of major government crackdown on ‘Jasmine’ protesters

BEIJING (AFP) ― Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released on bail in Beijing Wednesday nearly three months after he was detained during the government’s biggest crackdown on activists in years.

Police released him after he confessed to tax evasion and because he suffers from a “chronic disease,” the official Xinhua news agency said.

“I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine. My health is fine,” Ai told Britain’s ITV television as he returned to his home.

The burly, bearded artist w
ould not comment on the conditions in detention.

“No I cannot say anything. I’m really sorry. Please understand that. I’m so happy I’m home and thank you,” he told ITV News.

The release of Ai, who was taken into custody at Beijing’s international airport on April 3 while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong, was somewhat unexpected as authorities had suggested he was involved in massive tax fraud.

The detention of the 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, Xinhua said. Ai has diabetes.

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.”

His lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, told AFP late Wednesday he had received a text message from Ai confirming he had been released.

Ai’s sister Gao Ge told AFP she and her mother were still waiting to hear from the artist.

”We haven’t had any contact with him, we still haven’t seen him,“ she said.

”The police haven’t told us he has been released. Journalists called us and told us about the Xinhua report.“

Ai’s mobile was at first switched off, and then calls rang busy or went unanswered. The phone of his wife Lu Qing was switched off.

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 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.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed China’s decision to release Ai, “while regretting the circumstances of his detention,” her office said in a statement.

European parliament president Jerzy Buzek went further in his criticism, insisting that Ai’s arrest “was both unjustifiable and unacceptable.”

He said it was “characteristic of the general repression recently directed against human rights activists and dissidents in China.”

Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said 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.”

“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 told AFP.

“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.

Amnesty International’s Catherine Baber said Ai’s release was a “tokenistic move by the government to deflect mounting criticism.”

“Ai Wewei’s release coincides with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the U.K. and Germany ― countries where the artist has strong professional ties and public support,” Baber said in a statement.

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.