By Keith B. Richburg, Updated: Friday, April 27, 9:30 AM
BEIJING — Chen Guangcheng, the blind, self-taught lawyer known for his outspoken opposition to China’s forced abortion and sterilization policies, has escaped from house arrest and posted a dramatic YouTube video calling on Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his case and protect his family.
Hu Jia, another prominent activist and friend of the Chen family, said Chen arrived in Beijing on Monday and was currently in the U.S. Embassy under the protection of U.S. diplomats. The embassy would neither confirm nor deny that he was there.
“As far as I know, he is in the U.S. Embassy, the safest place in China,” Hu said. “He is in the U.S. Embassy, or under the shelter of diplomats at least. I’m not sure if he’s going to ask for political asylum or not. I don’t know if he still wants to stay in China.”
All information about Chen has now been censored on Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site that often serves as an alternative news source in China.
“Premier Wen, with great difficulty, I have escaped,” Chen announced in the video message.
Regardless of whether the U.S. government is currently helping shelter Chen, his escape from his village in Shandong province on Sunday, and the video detailing abuse he and his wife suffered under house arrest, seemed likely to embarrass the Beijing government just days before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrive for a long-scheduled talks on political and economic matters. Clinton has repeatedly called for Chen’s release.
“Since this happened just one week before the Sino-U.S. strategic dialogue, the timing is good,” Hu said. “Chen must be able to meet the U.S. human rights specialist and hopefully, he will meet Clinton.”
“This is an election year in the U.S.,” Hu said. “The Republicans are also watching what [President] Obama will do on this case.”
State Department officials in Washington were silent on Chen’s whereabouts, neither confirming nor denying reports that the dissident had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy, and refusing to comment at all about his status.
It is extremely rare, but not unprecedented, for detained activists to evade their captors and escape from house arrest in China. Chen’s escape, which apparently was planned over several weeks, raised fears that he could face severe reprisals if he is caught.
If Chen is confirmed to be at the U.S. Embassy or under the protection of American diplomats, it would immediately present the Obama administration with the second thorny diplomatic dispute with China in less than three months, following a Feb. 6 incident involving the former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who spent more than a day at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.
In that case, Wang left the consulate — of his own volition, according to U.S. diplomats — and was immediately taken into custody by Beijing central government security officials, but only after revealing a tale of internal intrigue, scandal and murder that led to China’s biggest political crisis in two decades. Wang, who as police chief led an often brutal anti-crime drive in Chongqing, is now being held incommunicado by Chinese security agents as part of a wide investigation into purged Communist Party official Bo Xilai.
Some Republicans in Congress have criticized the administration for not offering asylum to Wang, saying he possessed valuable information and could now be persecuted. But Wang was never considered a serious asylum case because of his background as a sometimes brutal law enforcer in Chongqing. Chen, on the other hand, is a well-known activist and rights campaigner whose plight has attracted international attention. And his escape comes at a delicate time when Washington is trying to enlist Beijing’s help on a range of global issues, from containing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea to helping broker a cease-fire in Syria.
There are several examples of temporary refuge given at U.S. diplomatic installations, but “posts may not grant or in any way promise ‘asylum’ to any foreign national,” according to Foreign Service regulations. Asylum is granted only to applicants in the United States or at a port of entry.
An example of temporary refuge granted in China was when noted scientist Fang Lizhi, whose advocacy for democracy helped inspire the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, sought protection from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, sparking a lengthy diplomatic standoff with the Chinese government. He remained inside the embassy for a year until Chinese authorities allowed him to leave China, in June 1990, for medical treatment.
Chen’s case has attracted attention, both inside China and abroad, because he had already served a 51-month sentence imposed after a sham trial on largely discredited charges of “obstructing traffic.”
Following his release, in September 2010, he was taken to his farmhouse in Dongshigu village and kept under an unofficial kind of house arrest, surrounded by armed thugs in plain clothes who prevented Chen and his wife from leaving and brutally blocked journalists and activists from going to see him.
Among those roughed up trying to see Chen was “Batman” star Christian Bale, who was in China filming a movie, “The Flowers of War.” Bale’s treatment helped further spotlight Chen’s confinement, which is unlawful even under China’s constitution and laws but has become a common way for the country’s security services to deal with those who they consider to be dangerous dissidents and troublemakers.
Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for the group Human Rights Watch, said Chen’s case “highlights the yawning divide between the government’s often lofty rhetoric about rule of law and the far grimmer reality endured by people like Chen, who challenge the status quo by merely seeking to access rights and freedoms guaranteed by China’s laws and constitution.”
“While the Chinese government has made much of its commitment to rule of law through its investigations of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai and his activities in Chongqing,” Kine said in an e-mailed statement, “the Chinese government has allowed a small army of plainclothes thugs to brazenly flout Chinese law in Dongshigu with utter impunity.”
Kine said Chen’s house arrest over the past 19 months amounted to “effectively a de facto and de jure kidnapping by elements of the security apparatus.”
According to activist sources with knowledge of Chen’s escape, it happened last Sunday. Chen had apparently planned his departure for weeks, pretending to be bedridden in hopes that those guarding his farmhouse would become less attentive.
Hu said Chen had to climb over a high wall, which was especially difficult because Chen is blind. “His story is the Chinese version of the Shawshank Redemption,” Hu said.
ChinaAid, a Christian human rights group based in Texas, reported that He Peirong, a friend who helped Chen with his plans and apparently drove him from his home, has since been arrested at her home in Nanjing. Witnesses said He was taken away by security officials; efforts by The Washington Post to reach her were unsuccessful.
ChinaAid also reported that Chen’s older brother and a nephew were arrested following the escape.
In his video message, Chen, wearing his characteristic dark glasses and seated before a white curtain, addresses Wen and announces that he has escaped.
Chen goes on to say that the reports of abuse he suffered “are all true. And the reality is more serious than the descriptions online.”
Chen says he still fears for his family. “My mother, my wife and my children are still in their clutches,” he says.
And he urged Wen to investigate corruption in his area.
“The money of our ordinary people and the taxpayers should not be used by some local officials who break the law to hurt people or hurt the image of our party,” Chen says. “Many people don’t understand whether all of these illegal acts are just law-breaking by the local party officials or whether it was ordered by the Central Committee. I think you should give a clear answer to people before long.”
A link to the video was sent to multiple Web sites, activists said, including Boxun.com, an overseas Chinese community Web site run from Durham, N.C.
Watson Meng, 47, who runs Boxun.com, said he did not know where Chen was or whether the U.S. Embassy was sheltering him. He said an activist contact in Beijing sent the video link to him via Skype and that someone in China had uploaded the video to the Microsoft Web site, Live.com.
Separately, a friend of Meng’s in Beijing sent a Skype message to him that had come from activist Guo Yushan. “Dear Friends, Chen Guangcheng has left Shandung magically,” the message said. “He is free at the moment. He is in a safe place. Chen Guangcheng authorized me to send three requests to Premier Wen Jiabao.” Chen discussed the requests in the video.
“This is a very exciting and encouraging development that Chen was able to escape from tight surveillance and enjoy some freedom,” said Bob Fu, the founder and president of ChinaAid.
Fu declined to comment on the current whereabouts of Chen but said the blind lawyer is far more deserving of American protection than Wang, the former Chongqing police chief.
Washington Post researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing, correspondent Andrew Higgins and staff writers Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.
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