Chen Guangcheng, a visually-challenged lawyer and crusader against forced abortions, has escaped from more than a year-and-a-half of house arrest in the north-eastern Shandong province and has called on the Chinese government to punish local officials responsible for his ordeal.
Mr. Chen (40) was sentenced to more than four years in prison in 2006 after he had taken on cases of hundreds of women in Shandong and accused authorities of performing forced abortions, which are illegal but took place widely in the 1980s and even 1990s under family planning programmes. Released in September 2010, the self-taught lawyer was illegally placed under house arrest by local officials in Linyi, Shandong.
Mr. Chen was said to be in a safe location in Beijing after escaping on Sunday, with rumours suggesting he had, at some point, been at the United States embassy. This information could not be confirmed. If accurate, it will complicate ties days ahead of the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for next week's Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
While China bristles at involvement in its internal affairs, relations have been complicated in recent weeks following the purge of Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai, whose downfall began when his former police chief fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on February 6 carrying sensitive documents. The U.S. reportedly denied his requests for asylum and has released little information about the scandal, apparently wary of straining relations at a time when it has sought Beijing's support on matters ranging from trade and currency valuation to North Korea, Iran and Syria.
In a video message posted to YouTube on Friday, Mr. Chen called on Premier Wen Jiabao to ensure the protection of his family. He said his wife had suffered repeated beatings at the hands of thugs, apparently hired by the local government. His wife and child are still at his home in Dongshigu village, near Linyi. While the circumstances of his escape are still murky, enraged local officials were said to have arrested Mr. Chen's brother and attacked his relatives after breaking into his house.
In his message, Mr. Chen called on the Premier to punish local officials who he blamed for his family's dire situation. “Even though I am now free, I am still concerned because my family — my mother, my wife, my child are still in their hands,” he said, according to Reuters. “I want Premier Wen to open a probe into this corrupt behaviour. The money paid by the people in taxes should not be wasted by corrupt local officials to hurt us.”