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China to free last high-profile Tiananmen prisoner

Written by: Staff

BEIJING, Feb 22 (Reuters) A Chinese journalist jailed for throwing paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong during the 1989 Tiananmen protests is due to be freed his mother and a rights activist said today, ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States.

The release of Yu Dongyue, 38, from more than 16 years in prison would leave about 70 Chinese political prisoners still serving time for their roles in the student-led demonstrations for democracy crushed by the army on June 4, 1989, the human rights watchdog Dui Hua Foundation said.

''He's the last major Tiananmen figure (to be released),'' said John Kamm, chairman of the San Francisco-based foundation who helps secure the release of Chinese political prisoners.

However as of today, Yu's mother could not be reached by telephone to confirm that her son had been released.

It was unclear if Yu's case was connected to Hu's visit to the United States, expected in April. China has in the past freed political prisoners ahead of major state visits.

Yu's mother, Wu Pinghua, 56, said earlier by telephone local officials had told her that she should wait at her home in Shegang in the southern province of Hunan for her son's return.

''He hasn't come home for 17 years. I'm very happy ... but he's mentally ill and it will be a burden to take care of him,'' the mother told Reuters, speaking with a heavy Hunan accent.

Yu Dongyue, 38, a former journalist and art critic with Hunan's Liuyang News, was incomprehensible and did not recognise his mother during her last prison visit in late 2004.

The authorities had rejected applications for his medical parole.

The cabinet's spokesman office had no immediate comment.

A colleague who was sentenced to 16 years in prison, Lu Decheng, is now in Thai police custody after fleeing China in 2004 while on parole to try to drum up support for the release of Yu, who rights groups say suffered a mental breakdown after persistent prison beatings.

Lu, a former bus driver, is due to leave for Canada on March 14 under a resettlement programme sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a Thai legal coordinator said, in a move certain to upset China, which is seeking his repatriation.

A third co-defendant who was sentenced to life imprisonment but later paroled, Yu Zhijian, was taken into Chinese police custody last week on suspicion of attempting to subvert the state, the Washington-based Radio Free Asia said.

It quoted Yu's girlfriend as saying he staged a hunger strike with four other people in support of a human rights lawyer, who has complained of harassment by the state security apparatus. His cell phone was out of service today.

The two Yus are childhood friends but not related.

Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years in prison for hurling emptied eggshells containing red paint at Mao's giant portrait which hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City, once the home of China's emperors, and overlooks Tiananmen Square at the height of the demonstrations on May 23, 1989.

Mao is still revered by many in China even though millions were purged or killed during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and about 30 million starved to death after he launched the Great Leap Forward campaign in 1958 and urged farmers to abandon their fields to make steel in backyard furnaces.

It was unclear why Yu Dongyue remained in prison while the other men were paroled. His sentence was cut twice -- by two years in 2000 and another 15 months in 2003.

China has sought Lu's repatriation.

''Lu Decheng slipped out violating Chinese laws. The Chinese government's repatriation request totally conforms with international practice,'' the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement faxed to Reuters.


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