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Chinese dissident Chen to join conservative U.S. think tank

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident and legal rights activist who accused New York University of forcing him to leave this summer because of alleged pressure from the Chinese government, will be joining The Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank.

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng attends the book release event for "China, the Book of Living and Dying" in Taipei June 27, 2013. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Chen will become a distinguished fellow in human rights at Witherspoon, which is based in Princeton, New Jersey, for the next three years. He will also be affiliated with The Catholic University of America and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, Luis Tellez, Witherspoon’s president, said in a telephone interview.

“We are taking the responsibility for the financial side and a home really where he can do his work,” Tellez said. “We’re not asking him to do anything specific.”

Until his escape one night in May 2012, Chen - who is blind - spent nearly seven years either in prison or under house arrest at his home in Dongshigu village in China’s Shandong province. He had enraged local officials by exposing illegal forced abortions and attempting to file a class-action lawsuit for the affected families.

He sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing just as Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, was flying in for bilateral talks, causing diplomatic tensions that were defused only when China agreed to let Chen accept an offer from New York University to come to the law school as a visiting scholar.

Chen released a statement in June this year accusing NYU of asking him to leave as a result of “great, unrelenting pressure” from “the Chinese Communists.”

NYU, which is building a campus in Shanghai, has rejected Chen’s accusation, and has been able to point to public statements made before Chen even left Beijing that support the school’s position that the placement was only ever intended to last a year.

China’s foreign ministry also disputed Chen’s claim. Chen has declined to discuss the allegation further.

Tellez said that he expected Chen would continue to focus on his work exposing abuses of the legal system in China and would probably continue to live in New York City for the next year.

Neither Chen nor the Lantos Foundation could immediately be reached for comment. The Catholic University of America said that it would hold a news conference on Wednesday with Chen and the two other organizations. A spokeswoman for the university declined to comment further.

The Lantos Foundation is named after Tom Lantos, the late Democratic congressman from California, and describes its mission as strengthening the role of human rights in American foreign policy.

Chen, who has been blind since childhood, learned most of his legal knowledge by getting relatives to read to him.

Editing by Martin Howell