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Ai Weiwei and other dissidents released, but questions remain

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves from the entrance of his studio on 23 June after being released on bail in Beijing
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves from the entrance of his studio on 23 June after being released on bail in Beijing

REUTERS/David Gray

The release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei last week was a welcome surprise, as was the release a couple of days later of his lesser-known associates, and that of renowned activist Hu Jia. But it also leaves troubling, unanswered questions about his arrest, detention and conditions of release - and what is happening to other jailed dissidents who do not have the benefit of an international campaign behind them, say IFEX members.

Ai was released on 22 June after being held for 80 days in secret detention without charge or trial at an undisclosed location, and apparently being made to confess to charges of tax evasion.

No formal charges have been brought against him, but China's official news agency Xinhua says he was released on bail "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from."

Zhang Jinsong, Hu Mingfen, Wen Tao and Liu Zhenggang - Ai's driver, accountant, assistant and journalist, and a designer - were all released on bail Thursday and Friday of last week, Ai's sister and a volunteer working with Ai told news reporters. They had been taken into custody at the same time as Ai.

IFEX members say Ai is unlikely to face further detention in this case, but the terms of his bail dictate that he's not allowed to talk about what happened to him. According to PEN American Center, that imposed censorship seems to be already in effect, when he told "The New York Times" upon his release, "I'm home, I'm fine. In legal terms, I'm - how do you say - on bail. So I cannot give any interviews. But I'm fine."

Like others jailed before him who have challenged authority, Ai will probably face restrictions on his movement, and be required to regularly report to the police. "He will also be unlikely to be using any of the tools of his former dissidence - his wit, his art, and Twitter - to needle the government," said Index on Censorship.

Ai's internationally-acclaimed works include last year's "Sunflower Seeds" installation in the Tate Modern in London and the installation of 9,000 children's backpacks on the façade of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich commemorating victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

"The Chinese government's decision to arrest Ai Weiwei was political, and so is his release," said 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."

According to Evan Osnos from the "New Yorker", "public pressure was effective, but the outcome must also be read in terms of Chinese diplomatic calculations." Ai was released a few days before the Vice Foreign Minister headed to Hawaii to meet with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was preparing to go on a tour of Europe.

Plus, at least 10 others who are less well-known than Ai have been victims of enforced disappearances since mid-February, says Human Rights Watch. They remain incommunicado, their whereabouts unknown, and are at high risk of torture in custody.

Practically at the same moment that Ai was freed, imprisoned journalist Qi Chonghuai was sentenced to another eight years in prison. Hu Jia, who was released as expected after serving three and a half years, faces severe restrictions on his speech and movements.

Just two weeks shy of his release, Qi was sentenced again on charges of embezzlement, extortion and blackmail, report the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other IFEX members. Besides the embezzlement, they are the identical charges he faced when he was arrested in 2007 after writing a news story criticising a local official for beating a woman who arrived late to work.

"I don't know who made the order to detain Qi continuously; however, I believe they are afraid my husband will disclose who treated him badly inside the prison," Qi's wife, Jiao Xia, told IFJ.

Qi had received beatings almost every day in Tengzhou prison, reports IFJ. After an international outcry he was reportedly transferred to another prison and assigned to work long hours in a coal mine.

Hu, an activist known for speaking about the chokehold on dissent ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was freed on 26 June after completing a three and a half year sentence for inciting subversion. But for one year, he can't speak freely or travel abroad as a condition of his freedom. Police have reportedly blocked the entrance to his home, and have warned other human rights defenders not to contact him.

Others who have been released have gone eerily silent, leading to concerns that they have been threatened with further abuses if they speak out, say PEN American Center and Human Rights Watch.

For now, IFEX members will focus on the role they played in Ai's release, and see if they can get the international community to "maintain that same pressure for the release of the many other innocent victims of the Chinese government's current wave of repression," said Human Rights Watch.

If anything, Ai's release is still worth celebrating. According to Chinese legal expert Jerry Cohen, it "represents a humiliating climbdown for Beijing… [and] nothing can conceal their profound embarrassment."

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