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9:29pm UK, Thursday June 07, 2012
Relatives of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest, have told Sky News how they were beaten and harassed by government officials seeking retribution.
Chen Guangcheng spent 19 months under house arrest in Dongshigu, a small village in eastern China where farmers scrape a living growing corn and peanuts.
Sky News journalists were manhandled and prevented from filming
Mr Chen escaped dramatically in April – humiliating government officials and sparking a diplomatic row when he sought protection inside the US embassy in Beijing.
But men, who locals describe as thugs hired by the government, still block the entrance to the village.
Sky News journalists were repeatedly shoved, prevented from filming and then followed for several miles by a car with number plates covered by camouflage-print cloth.
Mr Chen – a self-taught lawyer – earned the ire of the authorities after documenting how local officials intent on enforcing China’s one-child policy – forcibly carried out thousands of abortions and surgical sterilisations.
Mr Chen was sentenced to four years in prison for “damaging property” and “blocking traffic” – widely regarded as trumped-up charges aimed at silencing him.
After completing his jail term in 2010, both Mr Chen and his wife were imprisoned in their own home.
Local authorities tacked metal covers to the windows and periodically turned off the electricity, say family members.
After his escape, Mr Chen described how guards subjected both him and his wife to beatings – on one occasion leaving her with a broken rib.
Mr Chen, his wife and two children are now in New York, where he plans to study law. But Mr Chen has repeatedly voiced grave concerns for the safety of his family still in China.
Then they chained my legs together and began to hit me around the head. They removed my own leather belt, looped it together, and then hit me with that as well.
Chen Guangfu, brother of dissident Chen Guangcheng
In an interview conducted outside Dongshigu village, his older brother told Sky News he was tortured by police who were determined to find out how Mr Chen managed to evade the multiple layers of security that surrounded his home.
“They handcuffed me, and tied me to a chair,” said Chen Guangfu.
“Then they chained my legs together and began to hit me around the head. They removed my own leather belt, looped it together, and then hit me with that as well.”
His chief concern is now for his son, Chen Kegui.
When officials realised Chen Guangcheng was missing, they began forcing their way into homes in the village to look for him.
Chen Guangfu said he was tortured by guards
But Chen Guangfu says the fruitless search soon turned into angry retribution.
Chen Kegui used a knife to defend himself during a beating inflicted with an axe handle, say his family. But police have charged him with attempted murder, and if convicted he could receive the death penalty. He has so far been denied access to his lawyer.
To interview Mr Chen’s elderly mother, a Sky News crew entered Dongshigu on foot, under cover of darkness.
Chen Guangcheng is now living in New York with his wife and children
Wang Jinxiang, who is 78, wept as she recounted years of intimidation.
“The men follow men, sometimes three or four at a time,” she said.
“They search my clothes, my bag, my pockets. Sometimes even my shoes.”
Outside the family home, Mr Chen’s brother and mother pointed out the wall – roughly 10 feet high – that the dissident scaled to begin his journey to freedom.
They described how Mr Chen made a dash from his bed – where he had feigned illness for several weeks – as one of his guards left his post for a few seconds to fetch some water.
It was an audacious escape that eventually saw Mr Chen make his way to safety.
His family’s ordeal still isn’t over.
:: Since Holly Williams filmed her report, security restrictions and surveillance cameras in Chen Guangcheng’s home village seem to have been removed.