Peking - China yesterday formally arrested its most prominent dissident and father of its embattled democracy movement, Wei Jingsheng, on the capital charge of trying to overthrow the government.
Mr Wei, 46, has spent all but seven months of the past 16 years confined by the Chinese authorities. The Peking city authorities found that the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize nominee "conducted activities in an attempt to overthrow the government" between his release in September 1993 and his detention in April 1994.
The brief announcement was the first official word in 20 months on the whereabouts of Mr Wei, a former electrician at Peking zoo, who disappeared into police custody after a meeting a senior US human rights official. He has been held incommunicado ever since, with no notice given to his family or the numerous foreign leaders who have inquired about his status.
"His actions were in violation of the criminal law and constituted crimes," the official Xinhua news agency said. Conviction on the charge, virtually assured in China's justice system, could be punishable by death.
Mr Wei was released on parole in September, 1993, after serving all but six months of a 15-year prison term for selling military secrets and "counter- revolutionary" crimes, or subversion. During his six months of freedom, he said he had no regrets about taking a public stand and frequently and openly attacked the government. He encouraged China's dissidents to link up with workers and peasants, gave interviews to foreign journalists and published essays overseas.
Police cordoned off his home in Peking yesterday, but members of his family contacted by telephone dismissed the new charges as absurd, questioning how one man could overthrow the Communist Party while under constant police surveillance.
"What evidence is there?" one relative asked. "It's a frame-up. Such a big country, such a big party and yet they cannot tolerate one or two words of criticism. They're too fragile. If he did actually attempt to overthrow the government, who were his accomplices? It would be crazy for one person to try singlehandedly to overthrow the government."
"How long can you keep a man in prison to keep him quiet?" said Robin Munro, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch/Asia. "Now we finally know what the Chinese government has in mind for Wei, after a year and a half of keeping him in solitary, incommunicado detention." The authorities would have acted more swiftly, he added, if Mr Wei had not been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is the second time Mr Wei has faced the capital charge of counter- revolution. His first arrest in 1979 stemmed from his criticism of the Communist government and China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, during the tumultuous Democracy Wall period in the late 1970s.
Although he was one of Chairman Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Mr Wei turned against the Communist Party and publicly demanded what he called the "fifth modernisation" - Western- style democracy - adding a new twist to Mr Deng's Four Modernisations drive.
The arrest came as China's Foreign Ministry said it was willing to resume private discussion on human rights with US officials, although it demanded that Washington should stop confronting it at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, which it called interference in its internal affairs.Reuse content