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Protester in Mao portrait attack freed after 16 years

Clifford Coonan
Thursday 23 February 2006 01:00 GMT

It is shocking to imagine spending 16 years in jail for throwing eggshells full of paint at a portrait of a dead political figure, but if that leader is Chairman Mao Zedong and the portrait is the focus of China's Communist Party iconography, prepare for serious repercussions.

Yu Dongyue, 38, a former arts journalist, left prison a broken, deranged man yesterday after serving a sentence for throwing the paint bombs at the Mao portrait on Tiananmen Square during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

Mr Yu's mind is gone from his long period in jail, during which time he was tortured, rights activists say. His brother had to take him to his parents' house in Shegang in the southern province of Hunan, which is a seven-hour drive.

During his incarceration in Hunan province's No1 Prison, he spent two years in solitary confinement, he was given electric shocks, beaten and tortured in other ways.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Mao portrait hanging over the entrance to the Forbidden City, centre of China's imperial heritage, and the image of Mao's face dripping lurid red paint after Mr Yu's attack at the height of the demonstrations on 23 May 1989 was truly shocking.

The student protesters were taken aback by the action. They grabbed Mr Yu and his fellow paint-throwers and handed them over to security officials. He was later convicted of "sabotage" and "counter-revolutionary propaganda".

Mao is an idol to many Chinese, even though 30 million people starved to death after he launched the Great Leap Forward campaign in 1958 and millions were purged or killed during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

It was not clear if there was any connection between Mr Yu's release and President Hu Jintao's planned visit to the US in April, but China has previously freed political prisoners ahead of major state visits. The Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights watchdog, believes there are around 70 political prisoners still in jail for their part in the student-led demonstrations for democracy which were crushed by the army on 4 June 1989.

Mr Yu's two fellow paint-throwers have been released. Lu Decheng, who also received 16 years, is in Thai custody after fleeing from China in 2004 while on parole. He is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown after repeated beatings in prison. He is due to leave for Canada next month on a UN-sponsored resettlement programme.

Yu Zhijian, the third prisoner, was taken into police custody again last week after joining a hunger strike to support a rights activist.

It was unclear why Yu Dongyue stayed in prison while his two colleagues were paroled and other Tiananmen protesters were allowed to travel into exile.

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