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Chinese court upholds Ai Weiwei's US$2.4 mil. tax fine

BEIJING -- A Chinese court on Friday upheld a US$2.4 million fine for tax evasion against the country's most famous dissident, Ai Weiwei, after barring him from attending the hearing, in a case that critics accuse Beijing of using to muzzle the outspoken artist.

Ai had asked the Chaoyang District court to overturn the city tax office's rejection of his appeal against the tax evasion penalty imposed on the company he works for, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which produces his art and designs.

The artist said that Chinese police barred him from showing up in person, saying earlier he had “absolutely no hope” the court would rule in his favor.

“Today's verdict shows that this country, more than 60 years after its founding still has no basic legal process, still has no respect for the truth, still will never give taxpayers and citizens an ability to justify themselves,” Ai said.

“The entire judiciary is shrouded in darkness,” he told reporters at his home in northeastern Beijing after the verdict, adding that he would now sue the Chaoyang court in a higher court, ensuring he will remain a thorn in the government's side.

The case adds to China's already tarnished international image, at least in the West, coming on the heels of a score of other high profile cases, including the fleeing to the U.S. Embassy of blind self-taught legal activist Chen Guangcheng.

China and the United States will hold their next human rights dialogue in Washington next week.

The loss of Ai's appeal underscores top leaders' increasing intolerance of dissent ahead of a tricky generational transition of power at the end of the year, when Vice President Xi Jinping almost certainly will be anointed to take over from Hu Jintao.

Dozens of Police

Dozens of police and police cars flanked the road leading to the courthouse. Ai's wife, Lu Qing, was allowed to attend.

The Chaoyang District Court heard the case at a closed hearing in June, that in itself was a departure from the consistent refusal by the strictly controlled courts to give dissidents any hearing.

Ai, 55, had called the hearing unfair after police warned him to stay away and blocked journalists from approaching the cramped court room which only had five seats. The court did not answer calls seeking comment.

Tax authorities are demanding the company that markets his work pay a 15-million-yuan (US$2.4 million) penalty for tax evasion.

Government efforts to muzzle Ai have frequently backfired, as demonstrated by an outpouring of public sympathy — and cash — in response to the tax penalty. About 30,000 people donated money to help Ai cover an 8.45 million yuan bond required to contest the tax charges.

Clad in a gray T-shirt with his face and the words “missing” and “found” printed on it, Ai said he would not pay the remaining fine of around 6 million yuan and that he has no hope of recovering the bond already lodged with the tax authorities.

The fine is unlikely to put too much of a dent into Ai's finances, as his works go for hundreds of thousands of dollars and his profile has been raised yet further on the global stage after his repeated run-ins with the authorities.

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Dissident artist Ai Weiwei listens as his lawyer announces over a speakerphone the verdict of Ai's lawsuit against the Beijing tax authorities in Beijing, Friday, July 20. (AP/Ng Han Guan)

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