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Hard labour for Ai's student

AN assistant to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been sentenced to re-education through labour for attending a pro-democracy protest.

The sentence was handed down as Catherine Ashton called for an end to arbitrary arrests in China.

Wei Qiang, 21, a former art student who has worked at Ai's studio, has been sentenced to two years of re-education through labour.

It comes after Baroness Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, called for an end to arbitrary arrests in China.

She said: "Arbitrary arrests and disappearances must cease.

"I urge the Chinese authorities to clarify the whereabouts of all persons who have disappeared recently."

Baroness Ashton called for the immediate release of avant-garde artist Ai, designer of the iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics.

He is believed to be under investigation for tax evasion, an accusation sometimes used by the authorities to try to put behind bars those critics whose dissent does not amount to the crime of subversion.

Yesterday, Ai's wife, Lu Qing, said she was questioned for 90 minutes by tax authorities about the company Ai uses for his art activities.

Wei's sentence is the first confirmed punishment since online calls for Middle East-style Jasmine Revolution protests caused tremors of concern among the authorities.