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Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng escapes house arrest, activists say

A Chinese legal crusader, blind since childhood, has escaped from extrajudicial house arrest in eastern China and has been smuggled to Beijing, according to a rights group that has tracked his case closely and claimed to be in contact.

The American Embassy in Beijing did not confirm or deny rumors that Chen Guangcheng, whose some 19 months of confinement in his home village had attracted worldwide attention, may have sought sanctuary through U.S. or other Western diplomats.

“I can share with you Chen is now in the 100 percent safe location in Beijing,” Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid Association, wrote in an email exchange. The group has released reliable information about Chen in the past.

A separate statement by China Aid emphasized that Chen has said he does not want to leave China.

Hu Jia, a fellow activist and longtime friend of Chen, said he’d heard from a trusted source that Chen went to the U.S. Embassy. The veracity of that assertion remained unknown early Friday evening.

Asked for comment about Chen being in Beijing or at the embassy, embassy spokesman Richard Buangan responded, “Sorry, I don’t have any information for you on this at this time.”

The apparently successful getaway by Chen comes at a sensitive time – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will begin a series of high-level meetings in Beijing next week, when the case could be raised. The political situation in China has already been made delicate by the recent purging of politburo member Bo Xilai amid one of the worst political scandals to hit the nation in decades.

On Friday, a video of Chen was posted online in which he confirmed that he’d fled his village of Dongshigu in Shandong province. Styled as an open letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, seen by many as a reformer in China’s authoritarian system, Chen named some of the men who he said rushed into his home and beat him and his wife on multiple occasions.

“They all belong to the public security system, even though they don’t wear any uniforms,” said Chen, 40, wearing a black tracksuit jacket with a yellow Nike stripe and large sunglasses.

He urged Wen to open an investigation, saying that his mistreatment had harmed the image of the Chinese Communist Party.

Chen was sentenced to 51 months in 2006 after his efforts to expose local officials’ rough enforcement of China’s family planning laws, including dragging women out of their homes to undergo forced abortions. After being released from prison in September 2010, Chen, largely self-taught in the law, was placed under a home detention that included rings of security personnel said to stretch throughout the village.

The decision to make a bolt for freedom was, for the family Chen left behind, an especially risky gambit. Still in Dongshigu are his son, wife and mother.

He contemplated in the video the possibility that his relatives may bear the brunt of “insane retribution.”

A blogger for one China-related site, Seeing Red in China, posted audio of a Thursday telephone conversation with Chen’s nephew in which the nephew said his father, Chen’s brother, had been taken away by men who pried open their locks and kicked down the doors.

The nephew, Chen Kegui, said the group was accompanied by the head of the local township. Between sobs, Chen said that after hearing his mother in distress, he’d gone out with knives in hand and whacked at the club-wielding men.

After the melee, Chen Kegui said, he’d escaped the scene and was waiting to turn himself into the police. “I don’t know, I’m not clear about what kind of society this is,” Chen Kegui said.

“Concerns about immediate and severe risks to the health and safety of Chen’s family and those who assisted his escape can’t be underestimated,” Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an email exchange. “The plainclothes thug guards who have unlawfully confined Chen and his family have already demonstrated their willingness to use physical violence against Chen and his family with total impunity.”

Kine added: “The anger and face loss these thugs are no doubt feeling as a result of Chen’s escape – not to mention the lucrative financial rewards that their ’services’ have earned them – makes the possibility of retributive violence against Chen’s family and anyone suspected of assisting his escape highly likely.”

It’s not clear exactly how Chen got out of the village – Dongshigu is usually surrounded by plainclothes guards charged with keeping him from leaving, or outsiders from visiting. When a McClatchy reporter sought entrance to the area last year, guards in a silver Volkswagen gave high-speed chase down a highway in the middle of the afternoon.

British actor Christian Bale, who starred in several Batman movies, accompanied a CNN crew to the village in December and was pushed and shoved by guards until he left.

“Not even Batman could enter the village, how could Chen Guangcheng have left it,” said Hu Jia, Chen’s friend who added of the escape, “This is a miracle.”

In an interview with CNN on Friday morning, He Peirong, who has helped lead a campaign in China for Chen’s release, said that she and others met Chen at a rendezvous point and drove him to Beijing on Sunday.

He Peirong was reportedly detained later on Friday. Multiple attempts to reach her by telephone and email were unsuccessful.

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