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Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng can apply for visa to study abroad as U.S., China reach deal

The United States and China appeared Friday to have struck a deal to allow blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his family to leave the country, a potentially dramatic turnaround in a case that threatened to become a serious controversy for the Obama administration.

In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Chen had been offered a fellowship by an unnamed U.S. university and that the Chinese government had agreed to accept his application for travel documents.

“The United States government expects that the Chinese government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents and make accommodations for his current medical condition,” Nuland said. “The United States government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.”

It remained to be seen how China’s rulers would handle their end of the bargain – state media on Friday called Chen “a tool and a pawn” of the West. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also released a statement saying that Chen could submit an application to study overseas “like any other Chinese citizen,” an apparently positive signal about his prospects of leaving for America. Unlike the day before, U.S. Embassy personnel apparently were allowed to meet with Chen in person.

“We are . . . encouraged by the official statement issued today by the Chinese government confirming that he can apply to travel abroad” to study, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a press conference here. “Over the course of the day, progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants, and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward.”

If all goes according to that plan, it would mark the end a major crisis between Beijing and Washington. Clinton traveled to Beijing this week for a previously scheduled conference with Chinese officials that was quickly overshadowed by Chen’s story.

There were reminders on Friday, though, that China remains very much an authoritarian state.

While three friends of Chen who’d been detained for questioning after helping him flee house arrest, or who met with him after he fled, were freed, Chen’s nephew, who said he used knives to confront club-wielding men who’d stormed into the home of Chen’s brother, has not been heard from since fleeing the scene late last month. The status of Chen’s brother, the nephew’s father, also remained unclear.

A friend of Chen, rights lawyer Teng Biao, responded to McClatchy’s requests for comment with a cellphone text message: “Due to the fact that I’ve been warned and restricted, I cannot accept interviews. Sorry.”

And on Friday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China sent an email to its members said that journalists had been called in by the Public Security Bureau for warnings related to their reporting at the hospital where Chen is currently residing. “They have been told that they entered the hospital grounds without permission,” the statement said. “They were told that this was a first warning and that next time they would have their visas revoked.”

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement, “We’re hopeful but not reassured by the latest deal emerging for Chen Guangcheng. The fate of Chen and his family is far from certain, given that they are not yet safe and free.”

Baber added: “The disparity between high-level assurances and the reality on the ground is stark.”

After a daring escape from extra-judicial house arrest in eastern China on April 22, Chen arrived in Beijing and took sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy on April 26. Then on Wednesday, Chen decided to enter Chinese custody and was taken to a local hospital, where he’s being treated for a foot injury sustained during his scramble out of his home village. Beginning that evening, Chen told friends and media that he made the choice to leave the embassy only because he feared for the safety of his family.

Chen had been held under home detention in Shandong province for 19 months, during which he said that he and his wife suffered severe beatings by local officials and police. That came after Chen’s September 2010 release from nearly four years in prison on trumped-up charges related to his advocacy on behalf of women subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations in a campaign to enforce the nation’s one-child policy.

The lack of any way to ensure Chen’s wellbeing after the handover on Wednesday quickly became a crisis for U.S. State Department officials. They’d brokered an initial agreement that put Chen back in the hands of the Chinese government with only its promise that he would be treated well. Chen soon said publicly that he’d changed his mind and wanted to leave the country.

“Chen’s skepticism about the Chinese government’s assurances is perfectly understandable, because despite an increase in government rhetoric, China still lacks a rights-protecting legal system, and because the Chinese government did nothing to bring an end to his persecution despite having ample information about it,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong.

The announcement on Friday seemed to solve that issue by arranging for Chen, 40, and his family to leave China completely. It was not clear whether that travel would result in an asylum application by Chen. Attempts to reach Chen on Friday were unsuccessful. He told McClatchy the day before that while he wanted to leave the country “to rest for a period of time,” he would also want to return.

“I haven’t had a weekend in seven years,” Chen said.

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