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China investigates artist Ai Weiwei for "economic crimes" (UPDATE)

Officials deny that Ai was detained for his ongoing criticism of the Chinese regime.

Ai weiweiEnlarge
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei sits in the courtyard of his home in Beijing on November 7, 2010. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING, China — China acknowledged Thursday that acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei is in custody, under investigation for “economic crimes,” but a spokesman denied he was detained for his ongoing criticism of the Chinese regime.

A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Ai, co-creator of Beijing’s iconic National Stadium and a world-renowned artist, had not been imprisoned for his ongoing criticism of the Chinese government. Ai is an outspoken advocate of free expression and has been chronicling the recent crackdown on bloggers, lawyers and other critics.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei refused to elaborate on Ai’s situation and potential charges, ending the regular news conference after about 15 minutes when he saw that most questions coming from the packed room were about Ai and the political crackdown afoot in China.

“I think you have heard me clearly,” Hong said after repeated questioning. “Mr. Ai is under investigation on economic crimes. It has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.”

“The Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of expression,” he continued. “Meanwhile, the citizens must act within the law.”

Ai disappeared on Sunday, apparently grabbed by customs agents at the Beijing airport while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. He has not been heard from by his family or associates since. Local police refuse to discuss specifics of where he is being held or on what charges.

Two Chinese lawyers familiar with Ai and his situation said Thursday that if he is being held for investigation of economic crimes, his family should have been notified within 24 hours. There has been no information. Economic crimes in China typically refer to fraud and corruption, but there is a long list of possibilities, lawyers said.

Ai’s disappearance, the highest-profile yet amidst a massive crackdown on critics of the Chinese regime, has drawn international condemnation. The Foreign Ministry spokesman rebuffed that criticism on Thursday, saying China “is a country run by the rule of law.”

"We hope that the countries concerned will respect China's decision," he said. "This has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/110407/ai-weiwei-china-arrest-investigation