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Prominent Chinese AIDS activist missing

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Chinese AIDS activist who was organizing a symposium to help people with the disease fight for their legal rights has gone missing after meeting with police, his advocacy group said Saturday.

Although Beijing launched a more open and energetic fight against AIDS two years ago, the apparent disappearance of the activist, Wan Yanhai, highlights the government's lingering antipathy toward its more outspoken critics.

Four police officers showed up at the Beijing offices of the AIDS advocacy group Aizhi on Friday and questioned Wan for much of the day, the group said on its Web site.

With police still present, Wan ordered colleagues to cancel a symposium on AIDS, blood safety and legal rights that had been scheduled for Sunday, the group's statement said.

Wan spoke briefly with a colleague Friday evening on his cell phone but has not been heard from since, the statement said.

"The colleague asked Wan Yanhai his whereabouts, and Wan Yanhai replied that he was being questioned. Since then, his colleagues and family have lost contact with Wan Yanhai," the group said. Wan's phone has been switched off.

Wan has been one of China's most dogged campaigners for AIDS awareness and effective public health policies. He has frequently angered the Communist government, which had long ignored the spread of the disease. Wan has also drawn harassment from the police.

The government acknowledges the spread of AIDS is accelerating. The Health Ministry reported days ago that over the first 10 months of this year the number of reported HIV and AIDS cases rose nearly 30 percent, to 183,733, from 144,089 at the end of last year.

Health experts say actual cases are likely to be four to five times the reported figure.

Symposium was to mark World AIDS Day

Though it was not immediately clear what prompted police to question Wan, initial signs pointed to the now-canceled symposium on Sunday.

Wan's colleagues at Aizhi said more than 60 people, some of them AIDS sufferers and their families, were invited to the symposium, one of the activities marking World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

Twice on Friday while being questioned, Wan told his colleagues to be sure any participants who had come to Beijing returned home, the Aizhi statement said.

"Whether this is or isn't sensitive is not by our definition. It's theirs," said Wang Lixuan of Aizhi. A colleague, who refused to disclose her name, said the group held a similar symposium a year ago before AIDS day.

In a sign that organizers were aware of possible trouble, they did not publicize the symposium's location, but told participants to come to the Aizhi office for details.

Symposium was to address government responsibility

The event's topics — blood supply safety and legal rights — touch on issues of government responsibility. Several localized AIDS epidemics in China were caused by tainted blood supplies and unsanitary transfusions, and victims have struggled to win compensation from the state health system.

Throughout the 1990s, the government treated the disease with silence and ineffective policies, and Wan was a thorn in its side throughout. He was fired from a Health Ministry job in 1994 after publicly calling for AIDS education and gay rights.

He founded the Aizhi group later that year, and has since been occasionally detained. His publicizing of an epidemic from blood transfusions, in Henan province, landed him in detention for two months in 2002.