DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China – DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China (AP) — A blind, self-taught activist lawyer who documented forced abortions and other abuses was released from a Chinese prison Thursday and promptly confined 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 that are 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 phone service for several relatives, he said.
"There are 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.
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. 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.
A Radio Free Asia reporter who spoke with Chen minutes after he returned home early Thursday asked whether he and his family could now have real freedom. Chen, whose wife told the reporter they were being monitored, said only, "I would like to send my gratitude to friends around the world for their concern."
Chen added that he had been tortured while in prison, with the abuse particularly bad in 2007, but did not elaborate. He said he did not currently have any major health problems, aside from chronic diarrhea that began with a bout of food poisoning in July 2007.
Repeated calls to the cell phones of Chen's wife and brother were met with busy signals. It was not clear how long the apparent communication blackout would last. Authorities installed six surveillance cameras in the village last week to help them monitor Chen, Yin said.
A man surnamed Li in the propaganda department of the Yinan County Communist Party Committee, which oversees Dongshigu village, denied that the cameras were targeting Chen and said they had been installed in several villages as part of a safety campaign.
"Soft detention" is a common tactic used by the Chinese government to intimidate activists, with some essentially put under house arrest for years.
"For some Chinese activists, the end of a prison term is just the beginning of a lifelong sentence of police surveillance and harassment," Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The Chinese government has a chance to demonstrate real respect for the rule of law by ending its persecution of Chen and his family."
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 in Beijing contributed to this story.