BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei met with his wife for the first time since his detention six weeks ago, and in the presence of police told her that he had not been tortured, Ai’s mother said on Monday.
The brief meeting on Sunday afternoon between Ai Weiwei (pronounced Eye Way-way) and his wife, Lu Qing, followed weeks of uncertainty about the outspoken artist’s fate after he was seized at Beijing’s international airport on April 3, igniting an outcry about China’s tightening grip on dissent.
Ai’s wife, Lu, was contacted by police officers and taken to meet her husband “for a short while,” Ai’s mother, Gao Ying, told Reuters by telephone.
“The rumors that we’ve heard about him being tortured have been too much for us to take, but now seeing is believing,” Gao said of the meeting.
China’s foreign ministry said Ai, 53, was being investigated on suspicion of economic crimes, but Chinese police have issued no formal notice to his family notifying them that he is being held for any suspected crime.
Ai’s family has said the charge against Ai is an unfounded excuse to silence his criticism of the government. Police have not told his wife or other family members where he is being held. His secretive detention prompted heavy criticism in the West, and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council — representing EU governments — was expected to raise the 27-nation bloc’s concerns in Beijing this week. Lu did not answer multiple calls made to her mobile phone.
“He seemed conflicted, contained, his face was tense,” Lu told the Associated Press, noting that two other people were present during the meeting, including one who seemed to “be in charge” of Ai.
Ai’s elder sister, Gao Ge, said Lu was told by the authorities that she could only bring up questions related to Ai’s health during the meeting.
“She couldn’t mention anything about the case,” Gao Ge said.
“Weiwei said that up till now, he hasn’t been subject to mistreatment,” she said. “He said they’ve arranged everything, with regards to clothing, eating and housing.”
Burly, bearded and blunt, Ai, is one of China’s best-recognized contemporary artists. His career encompasses protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s and a role in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lu did not meet Ai at a police station, but rather at a location that she was not familiar with, said, Gao Ying, Ai’s mother. The couple sat across a table, with police officers watching them. “He was especially worried about my health, and of course she had to tell him that I’m doing well and not that I’m at home crying everyday,” Gao said. “Lu Qing told him the family is fine and told him not to worry. He was very moved and tears welled up in his eyes.” Ai’s mother said he was dressed in white, looked healthy and had not lost much weight. “His face was still red and he still has his beard. He didn’t look too skinny,” Gao Ying said, adding that Ai had told Lu he exercised by walking.
Ai’s work has included an installation of 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds and an exhibition featuring the names of earthquake victims scrolling on a computer screen. Unlike many of his peers, he has waded deep into political territory. He has spoken out on everything from last year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, denounced by authorities, to curbs on the Internet.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer who has advised Ai’s family and is a friend of Ai, said he believes Ai could have been placed under residential surveillance, instead of being held at a detention center, given the circumstances of the meeting.
“He was not wearing prison clothes, the meeting was not held at a detention center...and he told Lu Qing that he was eating well,” said Liu, who had spoken with Lu.
“At this moment, we still don’t know what crime Ai has specifically committed,” he said. “All they’ve said is he’s being investigated on suspicion of economic crimes. But there are 86 crimes related to that charge.”
Chinese authorities have become increasingly impatient with Western pressure over human rights, saying it amounts to illegal meddling.
U.S. officials raised Ai’s case in human rights talks in Beijing last month, but said they did not get an answer that satisfied them.
In February, overseas Chinese websites, inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” of anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world, called for protests across China, raising Beijing’s alarm about dissent and spurring a crackdown on dissent. China has this year jailed, detained or placed in secretive informal custody dozens of dissidents, human rights lawyers and protesters it fears will challenge Communist Party rule.
Additional reporting by Tyra Dempster and Maxim Duncan; Editing by Chris Buckley and Alex Richardson