Police remain silent on Ai Weiwei detention

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Police in Beijing have refused to explain why they detained outspoken Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei, his wife said Monday, amid fears that authorities are expanding a crackdown on dissent.

The whereabouts of the prominent artist -- who helped design Beijing's famed "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium but has since irritated the Communist Party government with his activism -- remained unknown, Lu Qing told AFP.

Ai was taken into custody on Sunday at Beijing's international airport as he prepared to board a flight "abroad", his wife said. Members of his staff had said he was headed to Hong Kong.

"As he was being detained, police came here with a search warrant and searched everywhere," Lu said by telephone.

"They took the computer, computer disks and other materials. They refused to say why the search warrant was issued or why Ai Weiwei was taken away."

Several of Ai's assistants were also detained for questioning on Sunday, but later released, said Lu, adding that she was not under house arrest.

Beijing police refused to comment on Ai's detention when contacted by AFP on Monday.

The artist's detention comes after scores of dissidents, activists, and rights lawyers have been rounded up in recent weeks, with many placed under house arrest or disappearing into police custody.

The clampdown followed anonymous online calls which emerged in February for protests each Sunday around the country to demand political change in China -- aimed at emulating those that have rocked the Arab world.

The disappearance of Ai -- -- whose work is on display at London's Tate Modern gallery until May 2 -- drew immediate concern from numerous human rights groups.

Amnesty International said the artist played no part in recent calls for protest, adding that his detention marks a widening of China's crackdown on dissent.

"If the authorities are so bold as to grab this world-renowned artist in broad daylight at Beijing airport, it's frightening to think how they might treat other, lesser known dissidents," said Donna Guest, the group's Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific.

Urging the international community to speak out against the arrests of bloggers and "cyber-dissidents", Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said: "The Chinese government is stepping up its harassment of the remaining prominent dissidents and is trying to silence all of its critics.

France and Germany condemned Ai's detention and urged China to release him immediately.

A frequent critic of China's Communist Party leaders, Ai -- who investigated school collapses in the massive 2008 earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan -- has repeatedly run into problems with the authorities in the past.

He said in February that his first large solo exhibition in mainland China was cancelled after organisers said the timing was too politically sensitive.

In January, his newly built Shanghai studio was demolished in apparent retaliation for his criticism of city policies.

And he was blocked from leaving China in December ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo for jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

Ai told AFP last week that he planned to set up a studio in Germany to show his work, explaining he was fed up with the hurdles of exhibiting in China.

"It's very discouraging what's happening here and if I want to continue to develop my work, I have to find a base," said the burly, goateed avant-garde artist.

Ai's personal cellphone has been turned off and no new postings have been seen on his Twitter site.

Postings on his Chinese micro-blog webpage have been deleted and news of his detention appears to have been stripped from major Chinese news portals.

Searches on his name in Chinese on microblogging site Sina Weibo produced no results.

"Since mid-February, the government has stepped up pressure on activists and rights defenders and in recent days the oppression has become more stifling," the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a statement on Ai's detention.

© 2011 AFP

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