Chine artist Ai Weiwei released on bail (Video Thumbnail) Ai Weiwei released on bail

Outspoken Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei is released by government authorities after nearly three months of detainment.

BEIJING: After 81 days in detention, China's best-known artist, Ai Weiwei, has returned home a considerably thinner and noticeably quieter man.

''I'm fine. I'm out,'' the 54-year-old artist said by telephone shortly after his release on bail. ''I'm back with my family. I'm very happy.''

The state news agency, Xinhua, said police had released him on Tuesday ''because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes'' and a chronic illness.

Considerably thinner ... Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves from his studio after being released by Chinese police from prison, where he was kept for 81 days. Ai was detained at Beijing Airport on April 3.

Considerably thinner ... Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waves from his studio after being released by Chinese police from prison, where he was kept for 81 days. Ai was detained at Beijing Airport on April 3. Photo: Reuters

Speaking from his home in north Beijing, the usually outspoken artist said he could not comment any further, adding: ''I'm on bail. Please understand.''

Ai's sister, Gao Ge, said: ''I'm very, very happy & we thank everyone, including our media friends, for all their help and support so far.'' His mother, Gao Ying, told America's National Public Radio that the family ''won't sleep tonight''.

The artist's disappearance on April 3 sparked international condemnation, with political leaders calling for his release and sustained protests throughout the art world. He vanished after he was stopped by officials at Beijing Airport, where he was due to board a flight to Hong Kong.

Officials later said police were investigating him on suspicion of economic crimes, although police never formally notified his family of his detention, which they are supposed to do within a day of seizing a suspect.

Ai's works include helping design the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing and last year's Sunflower Seeds installation in London's Tate Modern's turbine hall. But he has become as well known for his activism as for his art - although he suggested it was not easy to draw a line between the two.

He is the most high profile of dozens of activists and dissidents arrested, detained or harassed in recent months in what campaigners called China's most severe crackdown on human rights in more than a decade.

Several are still held and many of those who have been freed are understood to have been released under strict conditions.

The decision to bail Ai comes days before the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, visits Europe, where leaders were expected to press the case for the release. Although China has often released dissidents on the eve of major political visits, it has not done so recently.

Ai's only contact with the outside world during his detention - a brief 20-minute visit by his wife, Lu Qing - was arranged by police on the eve of the visit to China by the EU president, Herman Van Rompuy last month.

Ms Lu said he had looked mentally conflicted and tense despite appearing to be in good health and receiving treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure.

Nicholas Bequelin, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, welcomed Ai's release saying: ''His detention was political and his release is political. It is the result of a huge domestic and international outcry that forced the government to this resolution & I think Beijing realised how damaging it was to hold China's most famous artist in detention.''

Mr Bequelin said Ai would probably be confined to Beijing, have to report to police and not be allowed to travel abroad without permission. The Chinese government has said Ai's case was nothing to do with human rights, while his family believed it was retaliation for his social and political activism.

But some human rights campaigners thought the economic allegations offered officials room for manoeuvre, whereas they would not have felt able to drop political charges. Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director, Catherine Baber, called also for the immediate release of his four associates - Wen Tao, one of his friends, Zhang Jinsong, his driver and cousin, Hu Mingfen, an accountant, and Liu Zhenggang, a designer - who went missing shortly after him.

Mr Wen's girlfriend, Shi Jing, who had volunteered at Ai's studio, said: ''For both [Ai's] friends and family, it is positive news. As for Wen Tao, his family hasn't got any information so far &

''I still feel anxious, but since Ai is going to be bailed, there will probably be information about the others. They got into this because of Ai's case, so there should also be news about them.''

Guardian News & Media