Beijing: A blind legal activist who is a key figure in China`s rights movement escaped the house arrest he has lived under for a year and a half, fleeing to an unknown location and angering his captors, fellow rights campaigners said on Friday.
Chen Guangcheng slipped out of his usually well-guarded house in Dongshigu town on Sunday, said the campaigners, who are based in China and overseas. He Peirong, a leading campaigner for Chen`s freedom, said she picked him up and drove him to "a relatively safe place" she would not further describe.
"His mental state is pretty good. He`s alive, but whether he`s safe I don`t know," He said from her home city of Nanjing. She said she left Chen a few days ago but declined to discuss further details, other than to say he is no longer in his home province of Shandong, southeast of Beijing.
She denied an online report by Singapore`s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that Chen entered the US embassy in Beijing on Thursday night. The paper did not name a source.
"I can tell you he`s not at the US embassy, and he`s not in Shandong. I did talk to the US embassy people, though," He said.
The embassy would not comment. Security outside the embassy appeared normal on Friday.
Bob Fu, an activist based in Texas who runs the China Aid Association, said by telephone that Chen was safe and in good health, but added he could not say exactly where he was.
If confirmed, Chen`s freedom would be a boost for a persecuted dissident community that has seen heavier repression over the past two years. His plight under house arrest has been closely monitored by Western governments and by local activists, who have seen Chen — a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by a fever in infancy — as an inspiring, determined fighter for justice.
Rumors that Chen had died circulated on microblogs overnight. Local officials could not be reached for comment, the phone lines in Dongshigu having seemingly been disconnected.
Word of his escape apparently angered local officials, who began searching homes in Dongshigu looking for him on Thursday, said He and Fu, who had been contact with members of Chen`s family.
They said the town chief, Zhang Jian, led others to Chen`s brother`s home, then climbed over a wall to go after the family.
"Zhang Jian found out Chen was gone. He was furious..." He said. "They beat all the family who were at the home."
She said Chen`s nephew, Chen Kegui, "took a cleaver for self-defence. He said he hacked several people with the cleaver and wounded them”.
He said the whereabouts of Chen Kegui and other members of the Chen family were not known.
Chen Guangcheng`s treatment by local authorities had seemed especially bitter and personal. He served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his rural community. Since his release in September 2010, local officials kept him confined to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so. They prevented outsiders from visiting him and occasionally beat him up.