China releases prominent AIDS activist

Wan freed after admitting he leaked state report

September 21, 2002|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEIJING - China released a prominent AIDS activist from detention yesterday after he acknowledged leaking state secrets, apparently ending a case that drew widespread international criticism of the government.

The activist, Wan Yanhai, disappeared Aug. 25. It was later learned he had been placed under investigation by state security for disseminating a government AIDS report over the Internet.

China's official Xinhua News Agency said Wan had been detained on suspicion of illegally leaking state secrets and had been released after "confessing his crime."

Xinhua said Wan had delivered classified documents "to overseas individuals, media sources and Web sites."

In China, "state secrets" are defined broadly and can refer to any type of report meant for internal distribution. AIDS is considered a sensitive issue, and the government often is mistrustful of independent advocates or any organization that operates outside its control.

China has been slow to acknowledge publicly the impact of AIDS, but during the past year it has begun to talk more freely about the risk of a major health crisis developing in the country of 1.3 billion.

The government says about 1 million people are infected with AIDS or the virus that causes it, HIV, and it warns that unless the spread of the disease is controlled, China could have 10 million infected people by 2010. It has begun seeking more support from international groups and the pharmaceutical industry.

Wan, a former Health Ministry official, was one of the first AIDS advocates in China. He founded the Aizhi Action Project in 1994 to fight discrimination against homosexuals and people with AIDS. The project was closed this summer.

Wan called attention to the spread of AIDS through the purchase of blood from poor farmers in Henan province, and this was the issue that apparently got him in trouble. Underground blood banks pooled the blood, some of which was tainted, and re-injected it into the population. Health officials have been accused of covering up the scandal.

Wan told the Associated Press that he came under investigation for publicizing and distributing a report on AIDS in Henan.

He said he was mailed the report anonymously and did not realize he was breaking laws by publishing it on the Internet.

He admitted that publishing the report was a "mistake" but would not say whether he had been formally charged with a crime or had signed a confession.

Michael A. Lev writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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