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Beijing frees legal activist Xu Zhiyong

The founder of the Open Constitution Initiative is unexpectedly released on bail after being held for three weeks on tax charges. Two other activists are also freed.

August 24, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Chinese authorities, facing scathing criticism at home and abroad, on Sunday released from prison a celebrated legal scholar and two other activists.

Xu Zhiyong, founder of the Beijing-based Open Constitution Initiative, was unexpectedly freed on bail at 11 a.m. after more than three weeks in prison on charges of tax evasion. A co-worker, Zhuang Lu, was also released.

In a separate case, Ilham Tohti, an economics professor who had written about economic discrimination against the Uighur minority, was released after about six weeks in custody, according to a Uighur website.

"This shows the legal system is still working in China, and I'm very happy about that," said Yang Huiwen, a lawyer at Open Constitution Initiative, better known by its Chinese name, Gongmeng. Although Xu might still have to answer the tax charges, Yang said, he will at least be better able to mount a proper defense.

Xu, 36, was snatched from his Beijing apartment in the predawn hours July 29 in the midst of a dispute over whether his firm owed taxes on charitable donations from supporters, including the Yale University law school. Among other high-profile cases, the firm represented parents whose babies had been sickened last year by tainted infant formula.

What made Xu's arrest surprising was that he was considered a moderate, working within the mainstream to strengthen the legal system.

"This was not somebody trying to overthrow the current political system, simply somebody trying to inform Chinese people of their rights," U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week in Beijing. Berman said he was one of a number of U.S. officials who were taking up Xu's case with the Chinese government.

Xu's colleague said it was unclear whether U.S. pressure had helped nudge Chinese authorities into releasing the lawyer. "He was just released. We're not sure why," Yang said.

The new U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman Jr., took up residence in Beijing over the weekend and announced that President Obama will visit in mid-November.

China has been tightening security in the capital in anticipation of a military parade and other festivities Oct. 1 to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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