BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing’s tax authorities have asked the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, released recently from more than two months in detention, to pay 12 million yuan ($1.85 million) in back taxes and fines, a friend of his said on Tuesday.
The 54-year-old artist was released on bail last Wednesday, a day before Premier Wen Jiabao left for Europe, where Britain and Germany have criticized Ai’s detention. On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Ai’s release as she met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Berlin.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer who has advised Ai’s family and is a friend of the artist, said that Ai had received a notice on Monday from the tax authorities requesting him to pay 5 million yuan in back taxes and 7 million yuan in fines.
“He has three days to raise any opinions in writing he might have (on the demand),” Liu told Reuters by telephone.
“In accordance with the law on tax evasion … if he does not pay then he could be subject to legal action,” he added.
“For such a large sum, there could be a hearing,” Liu said, adding that any hearing could take place before July 7. He did not elaborate further.
Ai could not be reached for comment. Under the terms of his release he is not allowed to talk to the media. Family members were not immediately available.
The official Xinhua news agency said last week that Ai was freed “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from,” citing the police.
A company that police said he controlled was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents, and Ai’s release last week came after the artist has vowed to pay the taxes he evaded, Xinhua reported.
Analysts say Ai’s release is far from a signal of a policy shift by the ruling Communist Party. Authorities have muzzled dissent with the secretive detentions of more than 130 lawyers and activists since February, amid fears that anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world could trigger unrest.
The Foreign Ministry has said Ai, who had a hand in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, remained under investigation for suspicion of economic crimes.
But police have issued no formal notice to explain why he was being held. Ai’s family says the allegations are an excuse to silence his criticism.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)