NEW YORK (Reuters) - Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng urged authorities in Beijing on Thursday to prosecute “lawless” local officials who harassed and abused the self-taught lawyer, his family and supporters, saying such prosecutions could help China establish the rule of law.
In one of his first interviews since arriving in the United States last Saturday, Chen told Reuters the rough treatment of his family and supporters who helped him escape house arrest last month was “entirely against Chinese law.”
“If authorities can promptly investigate and prosecute those lawless officials who broke China’s laws, then possibly China can rather quickly move onto the road of rule of law,” said Chen, one of China’s most prominent dissidents.
“But if local officials continue to act wildly as they wish, perhaps in the near future my family’s situation will not be good, and I think that construction of the rule of law (that) the central government has undertaken in the last few decades will be thoroughly ruined,” he said.
After his escape, Chen sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for six days, embarrassing China and creating an awkward backdrop for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to improve ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
Chen is going to study as a fellow at New York University School of Law under a deal reached between the United States and China to resolve his situation.
He arrived in New York with his wife and two children on Saturday after China let him leave a Beijing hospital to quell a diplomatic rift with the United States. His right foot remains in a cast after he was injured fleeing the eastern China home in which he had been detained since 2010.
Dressed in a white shirt, gray tie and khaki pants and with his wife looking on, Chen’s lip quivered and while he at times looked uneasy during his interview with Reuters in Midtown Manhattan, he also laughed and showed he had a sense of humor.
He said he had felt ill after a car ride from New York University in the Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He conducted the interview with Reuters in Mandarin Chinese.
Chen expressed concern for his family and supporters, particularly his brother and his nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been charged with “intentional homicide” and accused of using knives to fend off local officials who burst into his home the day after they discovered his uncle had escaped house arrest.
Chen’s eldest brother, Chen Guangfu, also managed to flee his village on Tuesday, evading a security clampdown to seek help from lawyers for his son Chen Kegui whose case has become a rallying point among rights activists.
“My older brother escapes house arrest and comes to Beijing in search of a lawyer for my nephew,” Chen said in the interview.
“This is an extremely normal thing, and the most basic right of a Chinese citizen. If even this right cannot be ensured then I think development in the construction of China’s legal system over the past few decades has already been undone by law-breaking officials within the political system,” he said.
Chen was jailed for a little more than four years starting in 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his advocacy. He was released in 2010 but remained under house arrest and officials turned his home into a fortress of walls, cameras and plainclothes guards.
Chen had accused Shandong province officials in 2005 of forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilizations to comply with China’s strict family planning policies. Authorities moved against him with charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
Chen described the harassment and abuse of his family and supporters as “obviously a violation of China’s constitution, and is despicable.”
“The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said more than once that I am a free person. Did I do anything wrong by leaving my home? If other people helped me leave ... this is something that should be praised. Why then when I leave do they break into my home to beat people, detain them,” he said.
Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said on Thursday the United States is closely monitoring what was happening with Chen’s family in China.
“We have ... raised these cases and our concerns with the Chinese government both publicly and privately. ... We’ll continue to have contact with Mr. Chen and get his input,” Posner said at the launch of the State Department’s annual human rights report, which cites Chen under the “arbitrary arrest” section.
The report said that “a number of Chinese activists, friends and supporters, and foreign and domestic journalists who attempted to visit Chen reported being assaulted, detained, forcibly removed, or otherwise abused and prevented from freely accessing his village or seeing him.”
Chen said he felt optimistic and confident about his future. He spent the first few days in New York preparing for his studies at New York University, shopping for some necessities and getting himself a mobile phone.
“Now I am learning English,” he said. “Perhaps my course and research will start before too long. I will decide on my time here accordingly, now there is still no clear time. I have been here for such a short time - do you want me leave already?” said Chen, laughing.
“I am not in exile. This is a very fundamental premise,” said Chen, who has repeatedly said he hopes to eventually return to his homeland.
“No matter what happens, I feel very good about the future. There is no way to compare this with my life before,” Chen said. “Before I had faith that everything would get better, and the present has proved this was right.”
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Will Dunham