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US: Ai Weiwei Exhibit Spotlights China Repression

Intensifying Crackdown on Activists, Journalists, Peaceful Critics

(San Francisco) – The “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” exhibition, scheduled to open September 27, 2014 in the absence of the artist himself, underscores China’s intensifying crackdown on free speech and peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said today.

In recent years, the Chinese government has systematically tightened a range of already limited human rights. The government has issued new directives and regulations criminalizing free speech on the Internet and gagging Chinese journalists. The government has issued an internal warning to members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party against “seven perils,” including a free press and democracy, in what is known as Document Number 9. This crackdown has included the recent detention and prosecution of many activists, including prominent critics such as the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, the legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, and the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabao is serving an 11-year prison sentence for promoting democracy in China.

“Ai Weiwei’s installation at the infamous Alcatraz sends an important message that you can lock people up, but you can’t quash the human spirit,” said Brad Adams, Asia director, who will speak at the opening on Alcatraz the eve of the exhibition. “Ai Weiwei’s art speaks powerfully to people facing repression around the world.”

Human Rights Watch contributed to the development of the Ai Weiwei exhibition as a way to bring a message about the importance of protecting human rights to a broad audience. The exhibition, features seven new sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works, located across four sites on the former federal penitentiary turned national park. One of the installations, created from more than one million Lego blocks, features portraits of 176 political prisoners and political exiles from around the world, ranging from Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was taken into police custody at the Beijing airport on April 3 as he was about to board a flight for Hong Kong. Police held him in an undisclosed location for 81 days, allegedly for “tax evasion,” without access to a lawyer. Following widespread international pressure, he was released on bail on June 22.

Ai was one of a dozen activists detained during the government’s crackdown in 2011, which began in February in response to an anonymous online call for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. A number of these activists were also disappeared – held incommunicado with their whereabouts not revealed. After their release they said they had been tortured and abused. Ai’s sister also revealed his mistreatment during his disappearance, which included being held in a small room with lights on around the clock, and with security agents who followed his every move.

Ai Weiwei continues to speak out against government abuses, facing repeated harassment by the authorities. He is still unable to travel outside of China and developed his Alcatraz exhibit in his Beijing studio.

“Ai Weiwei’s upcoming exhibition on Alcatraz is a message of hope for all of the other Chinese advocates and journalists locked in Chinese prisons that they will not be forgotten,” Adams said. “Ai Weiwei may not have been free to travel to San Francisco, but his message will be heard around the world.”

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