updated 2/23/2006 1:51:57 PM ET 2006-02-23T18:51:57

A man who was jailed for throwing paint on Mao Zedong’s portrait in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during pro-democracy protests in 1989 has been released after nearly 17 years in prison, his family said Thursday.

Yu Dongyue’s release early Wednesday came ahead of a U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao in April, though it did not appear to be meant as a gesture to Washington: Yu served his full sentence, unlike other prisoners who have released early in connection with diplomatic trips.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with Hu Jintao’s visit,” said John Kamm, director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which studies Chinese prisons.

There are at least 70, and possibly as many as 300, prisoners still serving sentences for convictions stemming from the 1989 protests, Kamm said.

Yu, 38, returned to his family home in Shegang, a city in the southern province of Hunan, his brother and father said.

“His health is OK, but mentally he is traumatized,” his brother, Yu Xiyue, said by phone from Shegang.

Yu was one of three men who received long prison terms for throwing black and red paint on the 30-foot-tall portrait of Mao that overlooks Tiananmen Square.

They attacked the portrait on May 23, 1989, as thousands of student-led protesters marched through the square.

The three men were grabbed by angry students who turned them over to police. The students said they opposed vandalism.

'Counterrevolutionary destruction'
Mao, who founded China’s communist government and died in 1976, is still revered as a patriotic figure even though millions suffered in repeated political upheavals that he launched.

Yu Dongyue was convicted, along with Yu Zhijian and Lu Decheng, of “counterrevolutionary destruction and counterrevolutionary incitement.”

A court said Yu Dongyue also tacked a poster of “reactionary slogans” on the former imperial gate where the portrait hangs.

Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years but later received two sentence reductions. His brother said his parents visited him once or twice a year in prison during his captivity.

Yu Zhijian, a teacher, was sentenced to life in prison but released in January 2001. He is not related to Yu Dongyue.

Lu Decheng was sentenced to 16 years in prison but released after a decade. He went to Thailand, where he has applied for refugee status.

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