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

By Isolda Morillo, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

China’s blind activist lawyer released from prison

DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China — A blind, self-taught activist lawyer who documented forced abortions and other abuses was released from a Chinese prison Thursday and promptly locked down in his rural village with no access to communication, a relative said.

Chen Guangcheng, 39, is a charismatic, inspirational figure for civil liberties lawyers who have fought to enforce the rights enshrined in China’s Constitution but often breached by the authoritarian government and police. Chen was imprisoned in 2006, marking the start of a government crackdown on activist attorneys.

Chen was escorted to his village Thursday morning as family members were preparing to leave to meet him at the Linyi city prison, relative Yin Dongjiang said. The family has been under heavy surveillance in recent days and authorities cut off the mobile and landline phone service for several relatives, he said.

“There’s a lot of people in the village right now and the family isn’t allowed to leave their home,” said Yin, whose sister is married to Chen’s older brother.

Chen’s brother used Yin’s phone, which still worked, to send a message to lawyer Teng Biao saying Chen was at home and that all telephones had been cut. Yin said he had not seen Chen and did not know what his physical condition was after the four-year prison term.

Five men in plain clothes 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. 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.

Last week, authorities installed six surveillance cameras in the village to help them keep an eye on Chen, Yin said.

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 contributed to this story in Beijing.

will not be displayed