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China frees 3 activists from jails

BEIJING — Chinese authorities unexpectedly released three political activists from detention on Sunday, including one whose case had drawn global attention.

Officials offered no reason for the releases, but they occurred one day after the new U.S. ambassador to China, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, arrived in Beijing.

The government did not say whether it had also suspended criminal tax-evasion charges made last week against the most prominent of the freed men, Xu Zhiyong, a public-interest lawyer, that could result in a prison sentence of seven years should he be convicted.

The prosecution of Xu in particular has attracted scrutiny abroad because of his role in other cases that are seen as a test of the Chinese legal system's fairness. Xu, 36, and a co-worker, Zhuang Lu,were released more than three weeks after they were seized in their homes on July 29. The authorities also shut down Xu's Gongmeng legal center, also known as the Open Constitution Initiative, from which Xu and others had taken on cases against government authorities.

Recently, Xu's center represented parents whose children were sickened by chemical-tainted milk, a regulatory scandal that embarrassed the government and led to the collapse of one of the nation's biggest dairy companies.

In a separate case, Beijing authorities also released Ilham Tohti, an economist, Internet activist and ethnic Uighur detained after deadly riots erupted in the western Xinjiang region in early July.

Tohti, 39, ran a Web site called Uighur Online, a popular forum for ethnic Uighurs, who live mostly in Xinjiang, to discuss issues important to them. After the July rioting, Xinjiang's governor, Nur Bekri, charged that the site had helped foment the violence by spreading rumors. The Web site has since been closed. The government has accused Xu of evading taxes on a $100,000 grant that Yale University gave the Gongmeng center for legal programs. The charges are widely regarded by outsiders as punishment for Xu's advocacy of the rule of law.

China's court system is controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and legal decisions — especially in cases with important political or social ramifications — are often regarded as skirting written law to reflect the dictates of party officials.

The accusation against Xu was filed amid a general crackdown by Chinese authorities on independent activists, and particularly on those activists who receive financing from foreign sources. In a recent speech, China's justice minister warned lawyers that their primary duty was to support the Communist Party and promote a "harmonious society," and said that party minders would be sent to law firms to enforce that doctrine.

China scholars and political analysts have speculated for months about whether the crackdown is temporary, perhaps linked to government concerns about disruption of the October celebration of the 60th anniversary of modern China's founding, or whether it is part of a broader and longer-lasting effort to curtail free speech.

Xu's detention and later arrest has surprised many here because his Gongmeng center is regarded as among the most cautious and conservative of China's small band of public-interest organizations.

While the center has pursued some high-profile cases, it has been careful to work within the parameters of Chinese law and to focus on helping Chinese citizens secure already recognized legal rights.