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China's blind activist lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, released from prison

China's Chen Guangcheng helped a budding civil rights movement before his arrest four years ago. His example may have inspired others, despite sharp crackdowns from the Chinese government.

By Staff writer / September 9, 2010

In this undated photo released by his supporters, blind activist Chen Guangcheng, center, is seen in a village in China. Guangcheng has been released from a Chinese jail after spending the last four years behind bars.

AP Photo/Supporters of Chen Guangcheng, HO



Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was freed Thursday after four years in jail, to find the Chinese civil rights movement he helped pioneer weak, but lawyers still in the fight.

Mr. Chen, a self-taught “barefoot lawyer,” earned worldwide fame for calling attention to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China’s one-child policy, and for helping people seek legal redress for official injustices.

He and two like-minded lawyers were jailed, however, and the Chinese government has since cracked down hard on lawyers pursuing human rights or public interest litigation.

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“There has been an overall setback in the rights protection movement” in recent years says Stephanie Balme, a visiting law professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “It is much harder today to take any action on sensitive issues” such as human rights, food safety, religious freedom, AIDS victims, and a range of other causes, she says.

“It is rare now that lawyers are jailed, like Chen Guangcheng, but government repression of human rights activists and lawyers is worse than four years ago and more common,” says Jiang Tianyong, a former lawyer who was disbarred last year.

A generation of Chinese civil rights activists

Chen was a leader of the first generation of Chinese civil rights activists, encouraged by signs that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wanted to widen avenues of legal redress for injustice so as to dampen popular discontent.

The government changed tack, however, and in 2006 Chen was arrested. A prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was also jailed, as was another member of his firm Guo Feixiong, who had represented villagers alleging official corruption. Mr. Gao has now disappeared, and is believed to be in government hands. Mr. Guo remains in prison.

Last year the authorities “shifted from individual repression of lawyers to collective punishment,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong based researcher for Human Rights Watch. Around 20 of the country’s most outspoken civil rights lawyers were threatened with the loss of their professional licenses.

Mr. Jiang was among them; he had successfully defended a Tibetan monk accused of concealing weapons. “We took sensitive cases and we did not listen to the Beijing Judicial Bureau’s orders” he says, explaining the trouble he ran into.