(Reuters) - Chinese authorities have told dissident artist Ai Weiwei he will not be given a public hearing to reconsider a 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) tax evasion penalty allegedly due from the company he works for, Ai said on Thursday, a move he denounced as "inconceivable".
Supporters of Ai, whose 81-day secret detention last year sparked an international outcry, have said the tax case is part of Beijing's efforts to muzzle China's most famous social critic.
Ai, 54, told Reuters by telephone he received the notice, dated March 23, from tax authorities on Tuesday. It said Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which has helped produce Ai's internationally renowned art and designs, will only be given "a written hearing" and not a public trial.
"I think this is inconceivable," Ai said. "Our lawyer said: 'Which country in the world doesn't dare to face their own taxpayers?'"
"We can't understand the problem. I can only think that anything that cannot be made public is due to embarrassment at making it public," Ai said.
"As the people who've been charged, we aren't afraid of making it public. But as a country, how can you be afraid of being transparent?"
Beijing tax authorities were not immediately available for comment.
Ai paid a bond of 8.45 million yuan last November - all contributions from tens of thousands of supporters - that allowed him access to an administrative review of the tax evasion charges. He told Reuters then that he was pessimistic about successfully contesting the charges.
The company's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, said written decisions are legal, but are "a bad sign" because they usually uphold the original decision of the case.
Pu said authorities have not shown him any original documents with evidence of the alleged tax evasion and held a closed hearing last July. Pu said it was illegal for them to do so. Ai was barred from attending, but his wife, Lu Qing, was present.
"All these circumstances have led me to firmly believe that the handling of Ai Weiwei's company's (case) is a form of persecution, and that the tax authorities are helping the public security organs do their work under orders," Pu said.
Ai was detained without any charge in April and held mainly in solitary confinement until his conditional release in June.
But the bearded artist has ignored efforts to silence him and has instead become a rallying point for China's dissidents and activists under pressure since a government crackdown last year brought a wave of detentions and arrests.
Ai had collected more than 9 million yuan, that he says he will return, from about 30,000 donors, for the tax penalty.
The tax authorities have until the end of April to give Ai a decision on the administrative review of the case, Ai said.
When Ai was released on bail last June, the government said he remained under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes.
Ai told Reuters previously that he had not received a formal notice to explain "suspected economic crimes".
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Sugita Katyal)