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Ai Weiwei released from detention

Ng Han Guan / AP

Ai Weiwei, right, shakes hands with foreign journalists gathered outside his home in Beijing on Wednesday after his release.

BEIJING – After nearly three months of detention, Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei has been released by the Beijing police department.

A markedly thinner but smiling Ai, 53, did not take questions from the media outside his studio and home in Beijing. Asked to comment on the conditions of his detention, he tersely said, “I’m on probation and not allowed to talk.”

“I’m so happy to be home, thank you,” was the only thing he said before slipping into his home.

Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, wrote earlier today that the police cited Ai’s good attitude, chronic health issues and his apparent confession to charges of tax evasions as the reasons behind his release.

Though no formal charges have ever been announced by government officials – police have previously only cited vague “economic crimes” when talking about Ai’s case – a police spokesman told Xinhua that Ai was allegedly detained because of a “huge amount” of taxes he hasn’t paid for a company – Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. – and for “intentionally destroyed accounting documents.”

The aforementioned company was said to be registered under the name of Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. The family has previously stated their belief that Ai’s detention was retribution for his outspoken activism on a range of issues raging from free speech to justice for the child victims of school collapses during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Ai Weiwei in November 2010.

Earlier in the night, calls and text messages sent by NBC News to his family were unanswered, to be expected as scores of news agencies and well-wishers have been attempting to contact them. At the time, The Associated Press had managed to get only this texted response from Ai: "Yes. Free."

During his detention, Ai’s wife, Lu, had only been permitted one tightly monitored visit with her husband, during which she found him to be in reasonable health. The meeting was not held at an official jail, and Ai’s family was never officially informed of his arrest. News of Ai’s release was brought to the family’s attention through the media.

Ai’s release comes on the heels of five-day, three-country trip to Europe next week by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Among the countries Wen will visit are Britain and Germany, two countries that have been particularly outspoken in their calls for Ai’s release. As Wen and China work to develop ties through joint work on serious issues like the Euro crisis, it is possible that Ai’s release was a preemptive move to stave off a potentially embarrassing and divisive issue.

Human rights activists believe that Ai’s release is due in part to intense international scrutiny from around the world. “Without the wave of international support for Ai and the popular expressions of dismay and disgust about the circumstances of his disappearance and detention, it's highly unlikely the Chinese govt [sic] would have released him,” Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an email to journalists.

“AWW's [Ai Weiwei] future is still highly uncertain as he is as [sic] the mercy of a highly politicized judiciary during the worst spike in repression in China in more than a decade.”

The question now is whether Ai will continue his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government and his support for social and political activism. In recent months since the political roundup we have seen since the Nobel Peace Prize and the calls for a Jasmine Revolution, a number of activists who have been detained and subsequently released have been atypically quiet post-jail. 

Ai’s tight-lipped answers tonight are understandable of course for a man recently released from nearly 80 days of detention. However, people like Kine believe that Ai’s newfound subdued nature could be something more permanent.

“The fact is that AWW's ‘release’ will quite likely mean that his liberty, rights and freedoms will continue to be restricted, violated and abused.”