Artist-activist Ai Weiwei was released on bail last night, with police saying it was because he had confessed to tax evasion and was suffering from chronic illness.
The decision was also made 'in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded', Xinhua quoted police in Beijing as saying.
Ai was granted bail 'because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from', Xinhua said. Ai suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.
The artist was taken into custody in April as he prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong. His detention came amid the central government's biggest crackdown on dissidents in years, and sparked a public outcry at home and abroad.
Police later accused his company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., of evading 'a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroying accounting documents'.
Ai's wife, Lu Qing, could not be reached for comment. A lawyer friend, Liu Xiaoyuan, said Ai had returned to his studio in Beijing's Chaoyang district last night and had replied to a greeting sent by text message with a terse, 'Thanks'. Ai said he could not give interviews.
Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University, an expert on mainland law, said Ai's release on bail was 'the very best outcome that could have been expected in the circumstances of this difficult case'.
'This is a technique that the public security authorities sometimes use as a face-saving device to end controversial cases that are unwise or unnecessary for them to prosecute. Often in such cases a compromise has been reached in negotiation with the suspect,' Cohen said.
Investigations into suspects granted such bail may continue for up to a year.
The suspect is allowed to have freedom of movement, if not speech, in the city in which he lives. He requires permission to travel elsewhere in China and abroad. Cohen said the investigation was often quietly dropped so long as the suspect behaved himself.
Ai, the son of the late poet Ai Qing and among the Chinese artists with the highest international profile, had been detained for 81 days. He was taken away by border police at Beijing Capital International Airport as he prepared to fly to Hong Kong for an exhibition on April 3.
Cohen said the outcome 'makes clear that great international pressure plus significant domestic political and personal guanxi [connections] can be a potent combination even in the case of someone who went further than anyone ever has before in openly thumbing his nose at the communist regime'.
The release 'has nothing to do with the rule of law but everything to do with the exercise of discretion by the authorities', he added.
Word that Ai might be released shortly first spread on Twitter yesterday afternoon. Gao Ying, Ai's mother, said she heard from 'very credible' sources her son would be released on bail.
However, she said no officials had been in touch with the family.
'This piece of news is very reliable,' Gao said in a phone interview. 'My heart is pounding, I hope I'm not dreaming ... I have faith, and I believe this.'
Months of suspicion
April 3 Ai barred from boarding Hong Kong-bound flight at Beijing airport and apparently detained. Police raid his Beijing studio.
April 6 Police confirm they are investigating Ai for economic crimes. Editorial in state-controlled newspaper Global Times says Ai 'does as he pleases and often does what others dare not', and that he courted trouble so often he was bound to cross a red line one day.
April 7 Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei says: 'Ai Weiwei is under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes. It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.'
May 16 Ai permitted to see wife for first time since being detained.
May 20 Authorities say company controlled by Ai evaded tax and destroyed evidence, but don't say when Ai will be charged with crimes.