Blind Chinese activist lawyer released from prison but promptly confined in rural village

By Isolda Morillo, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chinese blind activist lawyer released from prison

DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China — Blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng returned home Thursday after a four-year prison stint to find that very little had changed — he was cut off from communication, monitored by security agents, his family still harassed and intimidated.

Chen, 39, was sent to prison in 2006 after documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations and other abuses in his rural east China community. A self-taught lawyer, he is an inspirational figure to others in China who have fought to enforce the rights promised in the constitution but frequently breached by the authoritarian government and its security forces.

Authorities stepped up their monitoring of Chen’s family in recent days, dispatching a dozen agents to watch his wife as she went grocery shopping the day before his return. On Thursday, men in plainclothes blocked the entrance to his village and relatives’ phones were frequently out of service.

“He told me he was at home but did not have personal freedom. There were eight or nine people outside his home and many others at intersections and entrances to the village,” said lawyer Teng Biao, who said he briefly got through to Chen’s wife’s cell phone.

“Soft detention” is a common tactic used by the Chinese government to intimidate activists, with some essentially put under house arrest for years. It was not clear whether Chen planned to continue his activism.

“There’s a lot of people in the village right now and the family isn’t allowed to leave their home,” said Yin Dongjiang, whose sister is married to Chen’s older brother. He said Chen was escorted home early Thursday just as his family was preparing to leave to meet him at the Linyi city prison.

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, which is ringed by cornfields. After a brief scuffle with the journalists, the men jumped into their van and chased the journalists’ car at high speed as they left the area.

Repeated calls by The Associated Press to cell phones for Chen’s wife and brother were met with busy signals. It was not clear how long the apparent communication restrictions and monitoring would last. Authorities installed six surveillance cameras in the village last week to help keep an eye on Chen, Yin said.

“For some Chinese activists, the end of a prison term is just the beginning of a lifelong sentence of police surveillance and harassment,” Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Chinese government has a chance to demonstrate real respect for the rule of law by ending its persecution of Chen and his family.”

Officials in the public security bureau of Yinan County, which oversees Dongshigu village, said they had no information about the heavy security presence surrounding Chen or how long it would last.

A man surnamed Li in the propaganda department of the Yinan County Communist Party committee denied targeting Chen with the surveillance cameras and said they had been installed in several villages as part of a safety campaign.

Chen told Teng, the lawyer, that he was in poor health and suffered from chronic diarrhea after frequent bouts of food poisoning in prison. He had requested that the government provide medical treatment for the problem but had yet to receive a response, Teng said. Chen also reported being beaten by a fellow inmate in 2007.

Blinded by a fever in infancy, Chen studied 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.

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

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