Ai Weiwei's release elicits calls for China to free more dissidents

Many world leaders and activists are using Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's release to urge China to ease restrictions on dissent.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Activist artist Ai Weiwei gestures while speaking to journalists gathered outside his home in Beijing, China, Thursday, June 23. Ai, the most high-profile target of a sweeping crackdown on activists in China, has returned home late Wednesday after nearly three months in detention. The official Xinhua News Agency said Ai confessed to tax evasion, accusations his family had long denied and which activists had denounced as a false premise for detaining him.

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Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei's release from prison after almost three months in detention was met quietly by world leaders and activists who, while happy about Mr. Ai's freedom, are still alarmed by the degree to which free speech remains curtailed in China.

Three of his associates are still missing, the Guardian reported, and many other Chinese dissidents remain missing or in detention. Amnesty International reports that at least 130 dissenters have been jailed since February. Ai is apparently not totally free either – he not permitted to leave Beijing and is forbidden from speaking to the media for at least a year, per the conditions of his bail, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"It's always a good thing when an individual, as we said, who's only in prison for exercising his internationally recognized human rights is released," said US State Department Spokesman Mark Toner Wednesday at a press briefing. "But there's obviously more individuals who are being held."

Several news outlets reported that the impetus for his release may be Premier Wen Jiaboa's impending visit to Europe – several European countries as well as European Union officials criticized China for Ai's arrest. China rejected those claims, saying that Ai was imprisoned for a "common economic crime" – he was apparently charged with tax evasion – and his detention followed the process for such a crime, according to the Guardian.

According to her spokesman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that his release is only the first step for China and that he must be cleared by the judicial system "in a transparent way," The Wall Street Journal reported. Germany is one of the countries on Mr. Wen's itinerary.

Amnesty International says Ai's release is not evidence of any change in the Chinese government's tactic toward critics.

“His release on bail can be seen as a tokenistic move by the government to deflect mounting criticism,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia Pacific.

“It is vital that the international outcry over Ai Weiwei be extended to those activists still languishing in secret detention or charged with inciting subversion.”

While the news of Ai's release is being talked about across the world, Chinese censors are working hard to keep discussion of Ai offline. CNN went black on local TV screens, while it broadcasted the news, CNN reported.

On Sina Weibo – a Chinese microblog with strict censorship guidelines – words with the slightest linkage to Ai are currently banned, including "release," "AWW" and "the fat guy." The phrase "love the future," which looks and sounds like his name in Mandarin, has also been blocked. …

Additionally, Internet users in China continue to have problems when searching his name via web browser or blogging their views about the terms of his release.

"Why can't I even type in "going home" now. I didn't really say anything sensitive. Sina do you have to be so scared?," @Agina1106 posted, in reference to censorship on Sina Weibo.

Fellow artist Anish Kapoor called for the international outcry regarding Ai's arrest to continue until all of his unfairly imprisoned colleagues were released. "We have to carry on making a noise. We must be strident: I call on every artist not to show in China," he said, according to the BBC.

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