Heavy security surrounds home of blind Chinese activist lawyer as prison term comes to end

By Anita Chang, AP
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blind activist lawyer set to be released in China

DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China — Heavy security surrounded the rural home of a blind, self-taught activist lawyer to be released from a Chinese prison Thursday after a four-year sentence that supporters say stemmed from his work documenting forced abortions and other abuses.

Chen Guangcheng, 39, is a charismatic, inspirational figure for civil liberties lawyers who have fought to enforce the rights that are enshrined in China’s Constitution but often breached by the authoritarian government and police. Chen’s harassment and then imprisonment in 2006 after documenting forced abortions around his hometown marked the start of a government crackdown on activist attorneys.

Chen was scheduled to be freed from Linyi City prison, but there were no signs of activity Thursday morning around the building, which is in an industrial area and surrounded by a high metal fence.

Five men in plainclothes blocked the road into Chen’s village with a van and six more came running after Associated Press journalists who tried to enter the community surrounded by cornfields. The journalists scuffled briefly with the men, who then jumped into their van and chased the journalists’ car at high speed as they tried to leave the area.

Attempts to contact prison officials or local authorities for comment were unsuccessful.

Chen’s wife Yuan Weijing had said Wednesday that she planned to meet him at the prison, along with their two young children and his brother. But she was unsure whether she would be permitted to do that, because of the heavy security presence around their home. Yuan’s mobile phone rang busy Thursday.

“Right now there are people all over my yard,” Yuan said in a tense telephone interview Wednesday, indicating that her conversations were being monitored. “I went out earlier to buy some groceries and about a dozen people followed me. There were agents, cars and motorcycles.”

During Chen’s four years and three months in prison, he has only rarely been allowed to see his wife, despite rules that provide for monthly visits. He has suffered from chronic diarrhea and his wife said he has been beaten by fellow inmates.

Blinded by a fever in infancy, Chen attended the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine to study acupressure, one of the few occupations available to the blind in China. But he developed an interest in law and eventually began fighting for disabled farmers in his home village, forcing the government to follow the law and waive their tax payments.

He expanded his activism after hearing complaints from people living in nearby villages that family planning officials were forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilizations to enforce the government’s one-child policy.

Although such practices are illegal, local officials sometimes resort to drastic measures to meet birth limits set by the government — and Beijing usually ignores the abuse. Chen’s careful documentation enraged Linyi officials, who began a harassment campaign.

He was accused of instigating an attack on government offices and organizing a group of people to disrupt traffic, charges his supporters say were fabricated. Police detained three of his lawyers the night before his trial, barred another from examining evidence, while a fifth was beaten by unidentified men.

Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong said Chen helped raise awareness among ordinary people of their civil rights. Chen’s prosecution heralded a period of rough tactics used by authorities to curb the determined group of activist lawyers who were taking on sensitive cases, Jiang and other rights experts said.

Jiang said the government has since adopted less heavy-handed ways to rein in the lawyers. “Methods to harass us have become more sophisticated nowadays. Authorities have made it very difficult for legal professionals to properly defend cases,” said Jiang, who was among 53 lawyers — many known for politically sensitive human rights work — who lost their legal licenses in July 2009.

“Now they would not dare to make any of us disappear, or kidnap us, but they will revoke our licenses or conduct trials with many irregularities,” he said.

Associated Press writer Anita Chang in Beijing contributed to this story.

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