China blocks human rights lawyers from defending nephew of blind activist Chen

Chinese authorities on Friday blocked prominent human rights lawyers from representing the nephew of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, assigning him two government-appointed lawyers instead, the rights attorneys said.

Chen Kegui, 32, is accused of attempted homicide in a clash he had with local officials in Shandong province who stormed his house looking for his uncle.

Chen Guangcheng escaped an illegal house arrest in his rural town last month, sought the protection of U.S. diplomats and is now in hospital awaiting permission to travel to the U.S. to study, in a case that has highlighted the impunity with which local officials bend the law to stifle dissent.

Supporters of Chen, who exposed forced abortions and other wrongdoing by local officials, fear that his relatives are at risk of retribution from local officials angry at Chen's escape.

Attorney Ding Xikui said police in Yinan county told him Friday that Chen Kegui, who is being held in a county detention center, asked for legal aid and that judicial authorities assigned him two lawyers.

"According to Chinese law, every suspect can only be represented by two lawyers. So we have no way of intervening now. They are not allowing us to see him," Ding said in a phone interview.

Lawyers Ding Xikui and Si Weijiang were the latest among more than half a dozen activist attorneys who had volunteered to represent Chen Kegui. Other lawyers who have tried to take up Chen Kegui's case say they have been threatened or been unable to renew their legal licenses.

Ding said that Chen might have decided to seek legal aid because he did not know that the activist lawyers had been given power of attorney by his wife. He said police rejected his request to see Chen to discuss the question of who would defend him.

"They should let us see him once to discuss the issue of who should represent him, to see if he still wants to be represented by the legal aid-appointed lawyers or by the lawyers appointed by his family," he said.

Chen Kegui allegedly hacked at local officials with knives. Chen Guangcheng says Chen Kegui was defending himself after being brutally beaten. Chen said Sunday that his nephew was beaten so badly in the clash that his pants were shredded.