China artist Ai Weiwei released on bail

Mr Ai said he could not speak to the media about his case

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Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has returned home having been freed after more than two months' detention.

He was bailed late on Wednesday after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion, Xinhua news agency said.

An outspoken critic of China's human rights record, his arrest in April prompted a global campaign for his release.

The 54-year-old said he was back home and in good health in a phone interview with the BBC.

"I am already home, released on bail, I can't talk to media but I am well, thanks for all the media attention," he said.

Mr Ai was detained as he boarded a Beijing flight bound for Hong Kong.

Perhaps most famous for helping design the Bird's Nest stadium that became the centre-piece for Beijing's 2008 Olympics, he was held at a secret location without access to a lawyer.

Beijing alleged the artist had evaded taxes and destroyed evidence; his supporters said the charges were motivated by his activism.

'I'm out'

Xinhua reported that Mr Ai had offered to repay the taxes and would be released because of "his good attitude in confessing his crimes".

The agency quoted police as saying the company that handles business aspects of Mr Ai's career, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, had evaded "a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents".

Xinhua also reported that Mr Ai was suffering from a "chronic illness".

Analysis

Ever since Ai Weiwei's detention at Beijing airport in April there have been calls for his release.

His supporters say the charges against him were politically motivated - an accusation strenuously denied by the Chinese authorities.

The artist's detention provoked an international outcry. The US and other countries said his arrest was a sign of the deteriorating human rights situation in China.

It came during the biggest crackdown against dissidents in China for more than 20 years, following calls for Middle-East style protests.

Hundreds of Chinese lawyers, activists and intellectuals have been detained or been questioned by the authorities. Some have disappeared.

China's foreign ministry previously said that Mr Ai was under investigation for "economic crimes".

It insisted that his arrest - which came amid one of China's biggest clampdowns on activists in years and was condemned by Western governments - had "nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression".

But the release coincides with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit this week to Germany and the UK, two countries with which Mr Ai has strong professional ties and public support.

Beijing has been under enormous pressure to free the artist, says the BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Beijing.

The case had generated criticism from the international community that China was breaking its own laws by holding Mr Ai in secret without access to a lawyer, adds our correspondent.

A message from the Twitter account of Mr Ai's lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, said he had received a text message from his client's phone which simply read: "I'm out!"

Chinese human rights activist Wen Kejian welcomed the release, saying Mr Ai's arrest had been political.

Artist's appeal

The US state department welcomed Mr Ai's release, adding: "But there's obviously more individuals who are being held, so we want to see the release of all these people."

Baroness Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, said Mr Ai's case had been "the subject of widespread concern" and featured in recent EU-Chinese discussions on human rights in Beijing.

She said she welcomed the news "while regretting the circumstances of his detention".

In a statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said his release "can only be a first step" and that China must now fully explain to Mr Ai the accusations against him.

The German director of Human Rights Watch said it was "not by accident" that Mr Ai had been released shortly before Mr Wen's European visit, but warned he could now be facing further restriction on his movements.

"Examples from the past of other dissidents that were released have shown that released opponents of the system face strict restrictions and many have been silenced," said Wenzel Michalski.

Rights group Amnesty International said Mr Ai's long detention without charge had violated China's own legal process.

"It is vital that the international outcry over Ai Weiwei be extended to those activists still languishing in secret detention or charged with inciting subversion," said Amnesty's Catherine Baber.

The circumstances of one of Ai Weiwei's relatives, his accountant and driver, who were detained at the same time as him, remain unknown.

British sculptor Anish Kapoor, who had led criticism of Beijing over the detention, called for the artist to be given a fair trial.

"While I am thankful that he has been released, I do not think that artists should present their work in China until the situation has been resolved," said Mr Kapoor.

The Indian-born sculptor had dedicated his monumental Leviathan art installation in Paris, unveiled last month, to Mr Ai.

Ai Weiwei gained international recognition in the early 1980s for his monolithic brick sculptures.

Last October, he unveiled a carpet of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds at London's Tate Modern, which he said questioned the role of an individual in society.

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