Blind Chinese legal activist escapes house arrest

Chen Guangcheng's dramatic escape and his allegations of police beatings, detailed in his dramatic YouTube video plea to PM Wen Jiabao, pose a new challenge of China's leaders in a critical year.
In this image made from video, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng is seen on a video posted to YouTube Friday, April 27.

Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, a key Chinese human rights advocate, has escaped from house arrest and issued a dramatic video plea to Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his illegal detention and mistreatment.

Mr. Chen, who had been kept incommunicado by teams of security men for 19 months since his release from jail, was “100 percent safe in Beijing,” according to a US activist who said he had been in touch with Chen’s family.

A spokesman for the US Embassy in Beijing refused to comment on reports that Chen had sought refuge there. 

Chen’s dramatic escape and the detailed allegations of beatings by police that he made in a video aired on YouTube Friday pose a new challenge for China’s leaders, already struggling with the fallout from the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai in the run-up to a leadership transition next autumn.

Chen, wearing his customary dark glasses and speaking directly to the camera, urged Mr. Wen to “thoroughly investigate … all this illegal conduct” by local officials in Linyi in Shandong province, whom he said had kept him prisoner in his home and repeatedly beaten him, his wife, and his mother.

“A lot of people do not understand whether it is only local officials who are breaking the law and doing whatever they like, or whether they were directed by central officials,” Chen said. “I think you should give the public a clear answer before long.”

ChinaAid, a US-based religious and political rights group whose director spoke with Chen's relatives, said in a statement that the legal activist was not seeking to leave China but had said he would “fight to the end for the freedom of my family inside China. I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.”

Chen, a self-taught lawyer, was imprisoned for four years after angering Shandong officials by his efforts to help women subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China’s one-child policy. He was found guilty of destroying property and obstructing traffic.

He was released from prison in September 2010, but kept under house arrest with his wife and daughter. His case attracted widespread international and national attention, but attempts by ordinary citizens, foreign diplomats, and journalists to visit Chen were repelled, often violently, by teams of men in civilian clothes patrolling his village and surrounding his home (see article).

In his video appeal, Chen recounted repeated beatings at the hands of these men and said that his wife was still suffering from unmended broken bones in her face and chest for which she had been refused medical treatment.

He pleaded with Wen to protect his family, saying that he was “very worried” that the local officials whom he had escaped “could start crazy revenge” against his relatives.

A blogger known as Yaxuecao posted the audio of a conversation he said he had held early on Friday morning with Chen’s nephew and neighbor, Chen Kegui, who said the the township chief had detained his father (Chen’s brother) in a raid on their family home that he had tried to repel with two knives. Chen Kegui is also thought to have been arrested now.

Chen did not say in his video how he had escaped the close surveillance to which he had been subjected, but one of his most prominent supporters, He Peirong, announced on her microblog account that she had picked Chen up and driven him to Beijing.

Ms. He’s telephone was unreachable on Friday, and she had reportedly been arrested at her home in Nanjing, in southern China.

In his 15-minute video statement, Chen gave details of his illegal detention and of beatings he said he, his wife and mother had suffered. He accused a number of policemen and local officials by name and said he had been told by one that “we do not need to obey the law or legal procedure and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Chen said his guards had told him that elaborate security arrangements to keep him in isolation, employing more than 80 guards, had cost the local government 60 million RMB ($9.5 million.) “The taxes that ordinary citizens pay should not be misused by law-breaking local officials to persecute people and ruin our party’s image,” Chen said, referring to the ruling Communist Party. 

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