Prominent Chinese activist freed: rights groups
Beijing (AFP) Sept 9, 2010
Blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who gained worldwide fame for exposing abuses in China's "one child" population policy, was freed Thursday after four years in prison, according to rights groups.
Chen was jailed in 2006 after accusing family-planning officials in eastern China's Shandong province of forcing at least 7,000 women to be sterilised or undergo late-term abortions.
"I have not changed at all. I want to thank all the friends who have been concerned about me," Chen was quoted as saying after his release, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a network of rights activists.
The group said he was released from prison in the city of Linyi, where he gained international fame for helping people seek legal redress over a wide variety of injustices, with corrupt officials a particular target.
Chen, who has no formal legal qualifications, is what is known in China as a "barefoot," or self-taught, lawyer. He has been blind since childhood.
Upon his release, he appeared in good spirits but was weak, thin and in poor health, as a result of chronic gastroenteritis, from which he has suffered since July 2008, CHRD said.
During his prison term, he was beaten by fellow inmates on at least one occasion, the group alleged.
"At the beginning, it was terrible. In 2007, it was really bad," Chen said in an interview with Radio Free Asia.
AFP was unable to reach Chen's relatives to confirm his release. Calls to the Linyi jail went unanswered. Prison officials had earlier said they do not comment on inmates.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying only that the "fundamental rights of Chinese citizens are guaranteed according to law".
Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, who herself reportedly was subject to official harassment and physical violence due to Chen's legal troubles, earlier this week told AFP she was "happy" her husband would be coming home.
CHRD said that Yuan's calls and movements had been monitored in the days leading up to her husband's release, and that she had had no Internet access during his incarceration.
Chen, believed to be 38, was convicted of "wilfully harming public property" and "gathering masses to disturb traffic order" -- charges that stemmed from a rally by supporters who were angry at police treatment of the activist.
Supporters scuffled with police during the rally outside Chen's home while he was under house arrest in early 2006. During his house arrest, Chen was allegedly beaten by police.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said local authorities recently installed 24-hour closed circuit video cameras outside Chen's home and were preparing for long-term surveillance of the activist.
"For some Chinese activists, the end of a prison term is just the beginning of a life-long sentence of police surveillance and harassment," HRW's acting Asia director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.
Sharon Hom, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China, called Chen's imprisonment a "stain on the history of the development of the rule of law in China".
In 2006, Chen was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people for his courage in exposing the abortion and sterilisation abuses.
Chen has been named among more than 200 candidates in the running for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and is a past recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, a human rights prize awarded to deserving activists in Asia.
On Wednesday, Chen's lawyer, Li Jinsong, urged the media and supporters not to contact Chen out of fears that such actions would only result in tougher restrictions on the activist.
"It is important for him not to visit with a lot of people because this could bring trouble to his family," Li told AFP.
"Right now, the most important thing for him is to be with his family and recover from his time in jail."
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