April 7, 2011 4:58:10 AM
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, April 7 (Reuters) - Chinese police said the detained artist and activist Ai Weiwei is being investigated for "suspected economic crimes", while his family said on Thursday he was the victim of a political crackdown also decried by the departing U.S. ambassador.
"Police said late Wednesday they are investigating Ai Weiwei for suspected economic crimes in accordance with the law," the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief dispatch issued on Wednesday just before midnight.
The report that Ai may be under police investigation for economic crimes, which could cover charges such as tax evasion, is unlikely to still the uproar his case has sparked, with human rights groups and Western governments calling him a target of China's campaign to stifle dissent.
The burly, bearded Ai (pronounced "eye") had a hand in designing the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and has juggled a prominent international art career with colourful campaigns against government censorship and political restrictions, often using the Internet.
Xinhua gave no other details of the allegations against Ai, who was stopped on Sunday from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and taken away by border police, sparking condemnation from Western governments and Chinese human rights campaigners.
He has not contacted his family since then.
"The economic crimes report is absurd, because the way he was taken and then disappeared shows it's nothing of the sort," Ai's older sister, Gao Ge, told Reuters by telephone.
"This is more like a crime gang's behaviour than a country with laws," she said.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who is leaving his post to consider a run as a Republican presidential contender, joined the fray earlier, another sign the case could fester into a diplomatic row between the world's two biggest economies.
"The United States will never stop supporting human rights," Huntsman said in a speech in Shanghai on Wednesday evening.
Future U.S. ambassadors "will continue to speak up in defence of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government," said Huntsman, according to a transcript on the website of the U.S. consulate in Shanghai (http://shanghai.usembassy-china.org.cn).
Liu is the jailed dissident who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, prompting outrage from China. Chen is a rural legal campaigner held in house arrest since being released from jail in 2010.
Ai's mother, Gao Ying, rejected the charges of "economic crimes" and said they were being used to stifle his activism.
"If he's not released, this will be the start of a long struggle," she told Reuters by telephone. "But they still haven't notified us why he was taken or where he is."
Ai's campaigning has included voicing support for the Nobel winner Liu and an online campaign to collect the names of children buried in a earthquake in southwest Sichuan province in 2008, many in schools that he and others said were poorly built because of corruption.
Ai was beaten up by police in Sichuan in 2009, when he was trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a dissident facing trial, and he told his family then that he may face similar punishment one day, said his older sister, Gao Ge.
"He told us he may have to go to jail one day for his activities, and he was very clear that we shouldn't try to meddle and stop him speaking out," she said. "My mother cried."
Police should have given Ai's family written notice of where he is and what form of detention he is in, said Liu Xiaoyan, a Beijing lawyer who said he had given advice to the family.
"The family should have received official notice but hasn't," he told Reuters. "The Xinhua report doesn't have any legal effect. It doesn't mean this is a final charge or anything like that."
On Wednesday, a Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, suggested that Ai had been testing the bounds of official tolerance. On Thursday, the paper issued new criticism of Western condemnation and reporting about the case and suggested that Ai was targeted for his political "provocations."
China, it said, "needs people like Ai Weiwei. But at the same time, it is even more important that Chinese law restrict the provocative behaviour of Ai Weiwei and others."
Since February, the government's ingrained fears of challenges to one-party rule have been magnified by online calls for "Jasmine Revolution" protest gatherings inspired by the political flux across the Middle East and North Africa.
Even feeble efforts to act on those calls were smothered by police, but the threat of protests has triggered an unusually broad crackdown. At least three activists have been arrested on subversion charges often used to jail dissidents.[ID:nL3E7EU14C]
In 2009, a Beijing human rights lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, was detained on suspected tax charges before being released after an uproar at home and abroad about vague economic accusations being used to intimidate human rights activists.
Ai's mother, Gao Ying, said he was unlikely to bow to accusations of economic misdeeds to win a swift release.
"He wouldn't surrender just to escape from their hands quickly," she said. "If he's not given justice, he'll refuse to come out, I think. That's his character." (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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