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China Releases AIDS Activist; Confession Cited

Asia: Wan Yanhai had posted an official document online. He says that was a mistake.

September 21, 2002|HENRY CHU and ANTHONY KUHN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING — An award-winning AIDS activist, whose detention by police for nearly a month sparked concern and protest around the world, was released by Chinese authorities Friday.

Wan Yanhai was released by state security agents after what the state-run New China News Agency called a confession by Wan that he leaked state secrets by obtaining classified documents illegally and passing them along to others, including overseas media. Contacted by telephone in Beijing late Friday, Wan said that what he had done was a mistake.

At issue was an official report about the growing AIDS crisis in the eastern province of Henan, a scandal involving illegal blood donations that the local government has tried hard to cover up. Wan posted the report on the Web site of his anti-AIDS group, the Aizhi Action Project, and helped bring the crisis to the attention of the outside world.

The New China News Agency said Wan "confessed to his unlawful activities, pleaded guilty and assisted the police in tracing providers of the illegal secrets." However, he said in the telephone interview that he had received the report from an unknown e-mail address and was unable to tell security agents who had sent it.

"I have a legal obligation to help the police. If I had known who had given me the document, I would have given [that information] to the police as a responsible citizen," Wan said.

He added that he was in good health and had not been abused during the investigation. But he declined to give further details of his detention.

Wan said he intended to continue his work in China fighting AIDS, "but I need to learn a lesson from this, that I must do the work more conscientiously in the future."

A former visiting scholar at USC, Wan disappeared Aug. 24 after attending a screening of a gay-themed film at a bar in Beijing. The Chinese government did not confirm until Friday's news report that he was being detained by state security agents.

His disappearance and suspected detention drew international concern and outrage--from his wife, Su Zhaosheng, in Los Angeles to the human rights group Amnesty International to a Canadian organization that presented an award to Wan for his AIDS work, which Su accepted for him in his absence.

The anti-AIDS activist group ACT UP helped stage a protest outside the Chinese Consulate in New York on Thursday, and other ACT UP activists threw fake blood onto a Chinese flag in front of the Chinese Embassy in Paris earlier in the week.

U.S. officials had raised Wan's case with the Chinese government. His release appeared timed to remove a potential irritant from the agenda for talks next month in Texas between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and President Bush.

The Beijing government is also eager to rein in any dissent in the run-up to a crucial Communist Party gathering due to begin Nov. 8. On Friday, a local court in the northeastern city of Changchun sentenced 15 members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group to prison terms of up to 20 years for hacking into cable TV networks.

The court found the followers guilty of "using a cult to obstruct law enforcement" and damaging broadcast equipment, the New China News Agency reported.

According to state media reports, the group used purchased broadcasting equipment to interrupt prime-time programming in the cities of Changchun and Song- yuan on March 5. In Songyuan, the group reportedly commandeered the airwaves for more than two hours, broadcasting a pre-recorded pro-Falun Gong videodisc to an estimated 160,000 viewers.

In the three years since the government banned Falun Gong following a demonstration by 10,000 adherents in Beijing, most would-be protesters have been arrested or put under surveillance, and the Chinese government claims to have largely vanquished the group.

But the ongoing battle of words and images, waged via satellites and Web pages, shows that the group is far from being eradicated in China.

It remains able to temporarily overpower or infiltrate state-run media, employing far more complex tactics than those of other critics of Beijing.

Falun Gong claims that followers have staged nine such incidents--which it calls "truth clarification programs"--since January, although not all of those incidents could be independently verified.

The group, which blends yoga-like exercises and elements of Buddhism and Taoism with the ultraconservative moral teachings of Li Hongzhi, the group's U.S.-based founder, counts many scientists and engineers among its worldwide following of millions.

Friday's verdict sparked a further round of sparring between the two sides' respective media outlets.

"Falun Gong practitioners have no channels whatsoever to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of expression," protested Falun Gong's Web site www.clearwisdom.net following the verdict. "Under these circumstances, they naturally have the right to insert their broadcasts" into state-run television.

"This sort of thing is just too wicked," Changchun resident Wang Guilan, 55, complained to the New China News Agency about the hijacked broadcast.

"We were watching TV just fine when this thing popped up. It ruined my mood for the whole evening and I couldn't even get a good night's sleep," she said.

*

Chu reported from Shanghai and Kuhn from Beijing.

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