Police prepared Wednesday for the release from prison of a blind, self-taught activist lawyer in much the same way they treated him before his jailing four years ago: putting his family under surveillance and ringing his rural east China home with plainclothes security personnel.
Chen Guangcheng 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’s harassment and then imprisonment in 2006 after documenting forced abortions around his hometown marked the start of a government crackdown on activist lawyers.
Chen, 39, is scheduled to be freed Thursday from the Linyi City prison, said his wife, who planned to take their two young children and brother to meet him. With a lack of information from prison authorities and high security around their home, she said, it was difficult to plan a homecoming.
“If we don’t even have freedom, then there’s no way to make any kind of plans. We’ll just see how his health is doing. That’s all,” Yuan Weijing said in a terse telephone interview, noting that her conversations were being monitored.
“Right now there are people all over my yard,” Yuan said. “I went out earlier to buy some groceries and about a dozen people followed me. There were agents, cars and motorcycles.”
During Chen’s four years and three months in prison, he has only rarely been allowed to see his wife, despite rules that provide for monthly visits. He has suffered from chronic diarrhea and his wife said he has been beaten by fellow inmates.
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 obey 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 sterilisations 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 organising 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.