China releases artist Ai Weiwei, questions remain

New York, June 22, 2011–Artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s release from prison leaves questions unanswered about his illegal detention and other missing activists and journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The whereabouts of Ai’s associate, freelance journalist Wen Tao, missing since April 3 and presumed detained, is still unknown.

State news agency Xinhua said today that police released Ai on bail after he confessed to evading taxes and because he has an unspecified medical condition. He still faces charges of tax evasion, according to Xinhua. Ai’s family was not notified of his discharge before Xinhua’s report, according to the U.K. Guardian. The Associated Press reported that Ai had returned home late Wednesday, but declined an interview, saying he was not allowed to speak as a condition of his release.  

The Foreign Ministry previously said he was being investigated for “economic crimes.” CPJ and other international rights groups believe that Ai’s April 3 detention was retribution for his high-profile work documenting injustice, including the deaths of children in poorly-constructed school buildings which collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s detention is part of a broad government sweep of its critics which has been ongoing since February.

“We are relieved by reports that Ai Weiwei has been released on bail, though we remain concerned for missing journalist Wen Tao,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Chinese security officials must allow Ai Weiwei to speak freely and continue his work unrestricted. Release from prison in China sometimes results in harsh restrictions on personal freedoms.”

Police flouted Chinese law requiring them to inform Ai Weiwei’s family of his detention and to file criminal charges within a few weeks. It remains unclear if he was being held in a prison or in another, undisclosed location as a form of house arrest. If the latter, Ai could face continued surveillance and restrictions.

Journalists and activists who the Chinese government view as challenging its authority are frequently isolated in their homes by police or plain-clothed security agents as an alternative or addendum to a formal prison term, according to CPJ research. For example, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng filmed the 24-hour police presence around his home in February, a reminder that his September 2010 release from prison was far from full freedom.