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Chinese AIDS Activist Released from House Arrest to Receive Rights Award in US

The Chinese government will allow a prominent and outspoken AIDS activist to travel to the U.S. to receive a rights award supported by Senator Hillary Clinton after detaining her at home for two weeks. The release comes after international pressure was brought to bear on Chinese officials, including a letter from Clinton to Chinese President Hu Jintao. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

Gao Yaojie, a retired doctor in her 80s, said officials in Henan province told her Friday she would be allowed to go to the U.S., to accept a leadership award for supporting women's legal rights in China. She said the police that had not allowed her to leave home for the past two weeks were no longer there. Her telephone service, which authorities had cut, has been restored.

Wenchi Yu Perkins is the human rights program director for Vital Voices Global Partnership, the Washington-based women's advocacy organization that will present the award to Gao. She welcomed Gao's release.

"I think it's really due to various pressure and also the government realizes that having Dr. Gao coming to the U.S. and receive this prestigious award is only good for China," she said.

Gao was key to exposing government-supported blood-buying programs in the 1990s that infected tens of thousands of poor farmers with the AIDS virus through infected blood transfusions. Her outspoken advocacy of AIDS patients' rights embarrassed Henan officials, who often harassed her and restricted her movements.

Perkins says Chinese officials placed Gao under house arrest because they were concerned she might say something that would make the government look bad.

The detention was widely criticized and the case to get her released was taken up by former first lady, now senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who wrote a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Aides to Clinton said China's ambassador to Washington Zhou Wenzhong called the senator on Friday to say Gao would be allowed to go to the U.S.

Clinton is honorary co-chair of Vital Voices and will help present the award to Gao on March 14 at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington.

Gao has been given numerous awards for her HIV/AIDS advocacy and education work. Perkins notes this will be the first time the Chinese government has allowed Gao to travel abroad to receive an award in person.

Chinese officials prevented Gao from leaving the country in 2001 to collect the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Two years later, authorities stopped her from going abroad to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, a prestigious honor from a Philippines-based foundation.

The Chinese government has come a long way from once denying HIV/AIDS was a problem to launching nation-wide education and prevention campaigns. But people infected with HIV/AIDS face widespread discrimination and activists are still harassed.

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