BEIJING (Reuters) - The brother of blind activist Chen Guangcheng has fled his village in north-eastern China, evading a security clampdown to seek help from lawyers for his son who has been detained in a case that has become a rallying point among rights activists.
Chen Guangfu, the eldest brother of Chen Guangcheng, told Reuters that he walked out of his home in Shandong province at 3 a.m. (1900 GMT) on Tuesday, eluding the increased number of sentries near his village by avoiding roads and running through fields. He arrived in Beijing on Wednesday evening after a six-hour journey by car.
His activist brother escaped Dongshigu village in late April after 19 months of detention at home, following a similar route to the capital before taking refuge in the U.S. embassy, where he stayed for six days and sparked a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States.
That crisis, which overshadowed a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was finally defused on Saturday when China allowed Chen to fly to the United States to study. But while Chen Guangcheng spent his first few days in New York after years of jail and detention, most of his family back home in Shandong has remained under a security clampdown.
The 55-year-old Chen Guangfu, in a rare interview since his brother escaped in April, recounted details of his own torture and reprisals by authorities since his brother’s escape.
He said he was restricted from leaving the village and that police in Shandong warned him they would increase the sentence for his son, Chen Kegui, who is being held on an attempted murder charge, if he gave interviews.
“I feel since they are already doing this, why can’t I say something?” Chen Guangfu said late on Wednesday in a teahouse in western Beijing. “I have the power to speak up.”
“I told them their claims have no legal basis, but are based on power or by their will to determine Kegui’s sentence. On this point, I’ll never be able to accept it,” he said, adding he planned to return to his village soon.
Local government and public security bureau officials were not immediately available for comment.
Chen Kegui, 32, was charged with “intentional homicide” for using knives to fend off local officials who burst into his home on April 27, the day after they discovered his blind uncle had escaped. He could face the death penalty. His lawyers, denied access to him on Friday, said he did not kill anyone.
Chen Guangfu’s wife, Ren Zongju, also may be indicted for “harbouring” her son, a charge punishable by up to 10 years jail, lawyers said. She was detained on April 29 and freed on bail. His daughter-in-law, Liu Fang, has been in Beijing for the past three weeks seeking lawyers for her husband.
Reprisals began soon after Chen’s escape was discovered. Just after midnight on April 27, men in plainclothes scaled the walls of Chen Guangfu’s home and kicked open its doors. They put a hood over him and took him to a police building. There, he said, they handcuffed him, bound his feet in iron chains, slapped him and stomped on his feet.
His captors lifted his handcuffed hands from the back so he couldn’t sit straight and used his belt to whip his hands. The beatings lasted “a long time” and his left thumb lost feeling, he said.
“How did Guangcheng escape?” police asked him repeatedly.
The Foreign Ministry has said that Chen Guangcheng was a “free citizen” after his release from jail in 2010. But the walls and guards that penned him in his home and kept supporters and reporters out reflect the pervasive informal controls used to throttle dissent in China.
His elder brother’s account illustrates the pressure authorities put on family members of dissidents and the hard line taken against Chen Guangcheng’s family. Their treatment has encouraged lawyers and advocates to challenge what they see as the ruling Communist Party’s stifling of lawful dissent.
A farmer and an odd-job labourer, Chen Guangfu said he told the police the full account of his brother’s escape after they mentioned the names of activists and villagers involved. He also told police he had an obligation to help his younger brother, and stressed that he had already completed his sentence and become a “free citizen”.
“I don’t think he’s a criminal. I don’t think I‘m in the wrong for helping a free citizen,” he told police.
After police took Chen Guangfu into custody, a second group of men went to his home and beat his wife and son, Chen Guangfu said. His wife later told him uniformed police charged in with shields and rubber truncheons and resumed beating her and Chen Kegui, who was by then bleeding and crying out for help. It was around this time Chen Kegui took a kitchen knife and slashed three officials.
Chen Kegui is being held in a detention centre in Yinan and authorities have barred family and the lawyers they chose from visiting or representing him, his father said.
Police told Chen Kegui’s lawyers that he had been appointed two lawyers from the state-run Yinan legal aid centre. Officials at the centre said they have no knowledge of the case.
“I think this is unfair and illegal,” said Chen Guangfu, a dark and lanky former high school teacher. “Based on my understanding of Chen Kegui, he will never refuse the intervention of outside counsel. From Guangcheng’s case, he understands thoroughly that these so-called ‘legal aid lawyers’ are useless.”
Chen Guangfu said he was “extremely pessimistic” about his son’s prospects.
Chen Kegui’s wife Liu, also present, told Reuters that she hoped her husband’s case would be treated like “a normal, criminal case”. Her 5-year-old son, Chen Fubin, is back in Shandong.
“He (Chen Kegui) must be heavily injured, I‘m worried about his physical state,” she said, her voice breaking. “Inside, he might be subject to beatings.”
The two lawyers she chose to represent Chen Kegui challenged the Yinan County Public Security Bureau for “illegal” efforts to deny them access to their client, in a letter to the Yinan police chief published on a microblog on Monday.
Before he left for the United States on Saturday, Chen Guangcheng predicted the authorities’ drive to manipulate his nephew’s case would fail and increase public discontent over an episode that has renewed international focus on China’s human rights and legal system.
Chen Guangfu also provided new detail on his brother’s escape. The blind Chen Guangcheng left on the morning of April 20, scaled eight walls, some as high as four metres, and slept in a pig sty, he said.
“I tried too to follow his escape route, there were two walls I didn’t dare to scale,” Chen Guangfu said.
The elder Chen said he helped by contacting activists He Peirong and Guo Yushan after learning his brother had left his village. The two activists drove down from Beijing and arrived at Tai‘an city in Shandong to pick Chen Guangcheng up.
Asked for his thoughts about his brother in the United States, Chen Guangfu said: ”I think if he has a chance, he should take us there to have a look.
“So many people have said bad things about the United States. Someone even said he was like a dog that was kicked out of the U.S. embassy,” he said. “But ultimately, he ended up in America. So I think the criticisms aren’t justified.”
Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jonathan Thatcher