China says artist Ai still being probed for suspected crimes

BEIJING Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:33am EDT

1 of 2. Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves from the doorway of his studio after he was released on bail in Beijing June 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who was abruptly released after more than two months in detention, is still under investigation for suspected crimes, suggesting Beijing will keep up the pressure to stop him from speaking out.

Ai's release came days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao heads to Europe, where Berlin and other capitals have been critical of Beijing's secretive detention of Ai and dozens of other rights advocates, lawyers and dissidents.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing that Ai's "obtaining a guarantee pending a trial" can last up to 12 months.

Under Chinese law, the phrasing is the closest equivalent to bail.

"Ai is still in the investigation period for suspected crimes," Hong said.

China's foreign ministry has said Ai was being investigated on suspicion of economic crimes, but Chinese police have issued no formal notice to his family to explain why he is being held.

"He is not allowed to leave where he lives, cannot interfere (with) other people's testimony, cannot fabricate evidence nor collaborate with others to make false confessions," Hong said.

Where Ai can go remains unclear, however.

Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University, said "obtaining a guarantee pending a trial" meant Ai could only stay within Beijing for one year, unless he gets special permission to travel inside China or out of China.

When asked whether the authorities released Ai because of Wen's upcoming trip to Europe, Hong said that no country had a right to interfere in its judicial sovereignty.

"The Chinese judicial authorities have acted in accordance with the law and have independently acted on the case," he said. "We hope the relevant countries will be able to respect China's judicial sovereignty and not interfere in it."

The Chinese government has cast its apparent backdown as a vindication of their controversial case. Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday Ai was freed "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from."

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)

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