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Wed Aug 28 2002 16:48:58 ET

An outspoken Chinese AIDS activist who publicized the plight of large numbers of farmers infected after selling blood is missing and feared detained by Chinese police, his wife and a rights group said Wednesday.

The case appears to be part of a stepped-up campaign of pressure by Chinese officials against volunteer AIDS workers and others seeking to publicise the country's crisis with the virus.

An elderly Chinese doctor who cares for patients has been put under surveillance, and an Italian freelance photographer was deported for trying to take pictures of suffering farmers, sources said Wednesday. In the latest case, Wan Yanhai, who founded and ran the internationally-known AIDS Action Project, a private non-profit group advocating the rights of China's AIDS sufferers, went missing on Sunday, his wife Su Zhaosheng said.

"I haven't been able to reach him on his mobile phone or home phone for days ... That's very strange because we talk every day. No matter how late, he always answers the phone," Su told AFP from California, where she is currently studying.

Liu Qing, president of the New York-based Human Rights In China, said it was likely Wan has been detained.

"I believe it's related to what has happened to him recently. There's a great possibility he's been arrested by Chinese police," Liu said.

"The Chinese government has long not allowed voices other than their own and Wan was a frequent, independent voice on the AIDS problems."

Su and HRIC have urged Chinese authorities to investigate, although police had no comment Wednesday.

Last month, Wan's group, called Aizhi Xingdong in Chinese, received notice from its partner, a university, to vacate its campus office.

The university said it received orders from higher authorities, Wan told AFP at the time.

His staff were called in by police for questioning. Following the eviction, Wan was frequently followed by plain-clothes police, Liu said.

The group's problems with the authorities started early this year when a member helped AIDS sufferers hand a petition to the government, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy had said.

The group's website aizhi.org has published a long list of names of farmers who died of AIDS after selling blood in villages in central China's Henan province, where the scandal was first revealed.

Wan said at the time of his eviction that he thought it was linked to his criticisms of the government about slow action in helping AIDS sufferers and their responsibility in the blood-selling scandal.

The government allowed blood stations collecting blood through unsanitary methods to be set up in Henan and other provinces in 1980s to mid-1990s, leading to huge numbers of infections.

Additionally Wednesday, Gao Yaojie, an elderly Henan doctor who has been providing basic medical care to the farmers and who frequently speaks to reporters said she had been followed by plain-clothes police over several periods in recent months.

"It's very dangerous right now. They've warned me against speaking to reporters," Gao told AFP, adding that a Beijing university student who helped Henan AIDS patients coming to Beijing was also followed.

In May, Beijing freelance reporter Peng Dingding was detained by police outside Gao's home and questioned for two days before being released, Peng said Wednesday.

Francisco Zizola, an Italian freelance photographer who travelled with Peng to take pictures of villagers dying of AIDS was also detained and deported, Peng said.

According to recent UN figures China could have around 1.5 million people carrying HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. UN officials warned in June that the country risks an "AIDS catastrophe".


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