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Chinese activist, now in U.S., cites harassment of family


New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 10:12 a.m. HST, Mar 14, 2013

HONG KONG » Almost a year after the Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng made an audacious escape from detention in his home village, his family there remains under surveillance and his jailed nephew has said he was beaten and warned by officials not to challenge his conviction, Chen and his older brother said.

Chen, who is blind, catapulted to international fame in April, when he evaded walls, security cameras and guards who kept him under house arrest for one and half years in Dongshigu village in eastern China. Helped by supporters, he found refuge for six days in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and left after Chinese officials agreed to let him study at a university and to investigate his complaints of brutal abuse by officials and guards.

But, worried that he and his family could suffer reprisals, Chen then asked to go to the United States, prompting testy negotiations between Chinese and U.S. officials that resulted in his departure to New York in May, accompanied by his wife and two children.

Since then, Chen has repeatedly criticized the Chinese government as failing to live up to vows of rule of law and respect for rights. Now he and an older brother have described threats and surveillance that Chen said showed that tethers on dissent remain tight under the new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who was appointed in November.

"In fact, they've never stopped monitoring us for one day after Chen Guangcheng left. There's still surveillance in the village," Chen Guangfu, the older brother who lives in Dongshigu village in Shandong province, said Wednesday. "The guards, they're still here, just a bit more hidden."

Chen Guangfu's son, Chen Kegui, was sentenced to three years and three months in prison in November for assaulting and injuring a government official who broke into the family's home in April during a frantic search for the escaped Chen Guangcheng. The brief trial was riddled with irregularities that thwarted the defense, said lawyers supporting the family.

During a visit from family members on Feb. 28, Chen Kegui told them he was beaten and threatened by guards before the trial, and that he has since been warned by prison officials not to try any appeals of the sentence, said his father, Chen Guangfu, one of the visitors.

Detention center guards repeatedly "threatened him that if he did not follow their demands or if he appealed, he'd face a life sentence," Chen Guangcheng said from New York on Tuesday.

"They also said that if he disobeyed then his parents and child could come under threat at any time," said Chen Guangcheng, who cited accounts of the visit from his family. "That's the reason why Chen Kegui told the court that he wouldn't appeal."

Prison guards kept close watch on the visit, and Chen Kegui appeared reluctant to recount details of what he has been through, Chen Guangcheng said.

"It's clear that there are other things he's holding back from saying," he added.

Chen Kegui, 34, said officials never told him that his family had arranged a lawyer to defend him at the trial.

"He said that he felt very disillusioned about the law. He didn't think it offers any hope," said his father, who is a farmer and manual laborer.

Chen Guangcheng, 41, taught himself law and was once praised by the government for his charismatic advocacy for aggrieved farmers and the disabled. But officials in Shandong province turned against him after he took up the cause of thousands of women forcibly sterilized by family-planning officials. In 2006, he was sentenced to 51 months in jail on charges of wrecking property and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic — charges that he and his supporters have said were concocted to silence him.

During Chen Guangcheng's imprisonment and house arrest, Chinese human rights lawyers and advocates took up his case as one of the most egregious recent examples of the Communist Party trampling on rudimentary legal protections in a bid to silence dissent.

Chen Guangcheng's brother, Chen Guangfu, said their home village remained under constant watch by teams of guards based at its main entrance, although the surveillance is less aggressive than before Chen Guangcheng's escape. He said last week a family-planning official visited a school looking for his 5-year-old grandson — the jailed Chen Kegui's son — in what he took to be an intimidating gesture.

Chen Guangfu said he was also recently followed.

"He was one of the guards we became very familiar with in the village," he said. "The situation is still quite tense here."

Government press and propaganda officials in Shandong province contacted by telephone refused to comment on the accusations from Chen Guangcheng's family, or they said they had not heard of them, as did officials in Shuanghou Town, which administers the village.

"I don't know. I just sit in the office," said an official in the town family-planning office, who gave only his surname, Yue.

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