China court, in rare move, to hear dissident artist's lawsuit

BEIJING Tue May 8, 2012 5:14am EDT

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (C) argues with a tax official as he arrives with his wife Lu Qing (2nd R) and assistants at the Beijing government tax bureau November 16, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (C) argues with a tax official as he arrives with his wife Lu Qing (2nd R) and assistants at the Beijing government tax bureau November 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court has made an unusual decision to hear a lawsuit by dissident artist Ai Weiwei who accuses the government of violating the law by imposing a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) tax evasion penalty on the company that markets his work.

The decision comes just days after blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in a drama that has made him a symbol of resistance to China's shackles on dissent.

Chinese courts rarely accept lawsuits filed by dissidents or their relatives. But acceptance of the case is only the first hurdle.

Beijing's Chaoyang District Court accepted Ai's lawsuit on Monday, Ai told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday, but he said it was hard to predict if he could win.

"I hope that they can make an independent verdict, but due to the interference of the tax bureau and the public security (bureau), it is difficult to say," said Ai, China's most prominent social critic whose 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry.

"This is an extraordinary circumstance, but I think even if they didn't accept this case, they wouldn't be able to hide," Ai said. "There were many problems with the procedures and the way they were carried out."

Ai, 54, is urging a Beijing court to overturn the city tax office's rejection of his appeal against the tax evasion penalty imposed on the company he works for, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which has helped produce his art and designs.

The company's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, told Reuters previously that authorities had not shown him any original documents with evidence of the alleged tax evasion and had held a closed hearing last July, which he said violated the law.

Ai was barred from attending the hearing, but his wife, Lu Qing, who is also the firm's legal representative, was present. The court told Lu on Monday that it would accept the lawsuit, Ai said, but no trial date has been set.

Court officials were not available to comment on Tuesday.

Supporters of Ai have said the tax case is part of the government's effort to muzzle the outspoken social critic.

Ai was detained without any charge in April 2011 and held mainly in solitary confinement until his conditional release in June.

The bearded artist has been a persistent irritant to authorities and has ignored efforts to silence him, making use of Twitter to communicate with his supporters and calling for a public forum to discuss his tax case.

(Additional reporting by Huang Yan; Editing by Ken Wills and Nick Macfie)

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