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Ai Weiwei released from detention in Beijing

UPDATE: Chinese delegation pull out of Sheffield Doc/Fest after organisers refuse to censor programme (Index on Censorship, 18 June 2012)

(PEN American Center/IFEX) - New York City, June 22, 2011 - PEN American Center today welcomed reports that Ai Weiwei, one of China's most acclaimed artists and cultural figures, has been released on bail after three months in detention, calling the news "an important gesture at a key moment for China" and "an affirmation of the power of people of conscience around the world to challenge human rights abuses." PEN urged all those who protested Ai Weiwei's arrest to continue to raise their voices on behalf of the many other writers, intellectuals, and cultural figures still imprisoned in China.

"Though Chinese authorities insist that Ai Weiwei was detained not for things he has said, everyone who knows what is happening in China today will have drawn the conclusion that he would not have been arrested and charged if he had kept silent about abuses by party officials in his country," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center. "We will have to wait and see whether Ai Weiwei's release was conditional on his abandoning his right to free expression - which will be the only reasonable conclusion if he ceases to speak clearly, as he has done in the past, against the many abuses that Chinese censorship aims to conceal."

Mr. Ai, whose internationally-acclaimed works include last year's "Sunflower Seeds" installation in the Turbine Hall of 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, was detained on April 3, 2011, as he attempted to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong. He was held in secret detention without charge or trial at an undisclosed location and apparently made to confess to charges of tax evasion.

Chinese authorities have said that they have released Mr. Ai on bail "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from." Such arrangements usually carry significant restrictions on freedom of movement and speech and continuing monitoring and surveillance - a regime Mr. Ai seemed to indicate is in effect in his case when he told a New York Times reporter today, "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."

While welcoming Ai Weiwei's release, PEN noted that a number of prominent writers, dissidents and human rights lawyers who have been arbitrarily detained and then released in the past several months have "gone eerily silent," apparently as a result of mistreatment in prison and ongoing surveillance and other post-release restrictions.

"It is important to remember that Ai Weiwei, as well as Independent Chinese PEN Center members Teng Biao and Ye Du, and many others detained and held incommunicado in the past several months were jailed in clear violation of their universal right to freedom of expression," said Larry Siems, director of PEN American Center's Freedom to Write program. "While we are extremely relieved that they have been released, we would note that the violations of their rights will only end when they are allowed to live and work without supervision or restrictions."

"PEN will continue to press for the full restoration of free expression rights for Ai Weiwei and others, and for the release of the dozens of writers, journalists, and bloggers still imprisoned in China," Siems said. "As we do, we implore every single person who joined in creating a truly universal wave of support for Ai Weiwei to continue to speak out for the right of all to create and to speak freely in the People's Republic of China."

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