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23 February 2006
New York Times, February 23, 2006
By JIM YARDLEY
BEIJING, Feb. 22 A Chinese journalist was freed Wednesday after spending nearly 17 years in prison for splattering paint on a portrait of Mao during the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, a family member and a human rights advocate said.
The journalist, Yu Dongyue, now 38, and two friends hurled eggs filled with red paint at the famous painting of Mao, which still stares at Tiananmen Square from across the street, where it hangs above the entrance to the Forbidden City. Mr. Yu and his family are expected to reunite in Hunan Province on Thursday, but his younger brother said the family was deeply concerned about Mr. Yu's mental health.
"He no longer recognizes me," said Yu Xiyue, the brother, who made a prison visit last year. In 2004, Reporters Without Borders, the journalism advocacy group, said Mr. Yu had gone insane as a result of torture in prison.
Human rights groups have long made Mr. Yu's release a priority. China once made it a practice to release a prominent prisoner in advance of an important state visit, and President Hu Jintao is to visit the United States in April.
But John Kamm, the human rights campaigner who long lobbied on behalf of Mr. Yu, stopped short of giving China credit for leniency. He said Mr. Yu's sentence, which was originally 20 years but was reduced twice, concluded on Tuesday.
"It's an early release only in the sense that he was originally sentenced to 20 years," said Mr. Kamm, whose San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation serves as an advocate for the release of Chinese political prisoners. "Frankly, I was hoping they would commute. In my opinion, this is a fairly minor gesture, if one at all."
Mr. Kamm said Mr. Yu's return to society would be tightly restricted, as is the case with all freed political prisoners. He will not have any political rights and will be forbidden to work at a university or any state-owned enterprise. He is also prohibited from speaking to news organizations.
"He will be, for the rest of his life, a targeted person," Mr. Kamm said.
Mr. Yu had worked as a reporter and art critic for Liuyang News, a local paper in Hunan. In 2004, Lu Decheng, one of the two friends arrested with Mr. Yu, visited him in prison and told Radio Free Asia that he was "barely recognizable."
Mr. Yu had "a totally dull look in his eyes, kept repeating words over and over as if he were chanting a mantra," Mr. Lu said, adding: "He had a big scar on the right side of his head. A fellow prisoner said Yu had been tied to an electricity pole and left out in the hot sun for several days. He was also kept in solitary confinement for two years, and that was what broke him."
Unlike Mr. Yu, both Mr. Lu and the third man, Yu Zhijian, were imprisoned but later paroled. Mr. Lu, who fled China in 2004, is now in Thailand awaiting final approval for resettlement in Canada, Mr. Kamm said. Yu Zhijian was reportedly rearrested this month as part of a police roundup of dissidents conducting a hunger strike.