Friend says activist left U.S. Embassy due to threats to family

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BEIJING -- A close friend of a blind Chinese legal activist who has been holed up at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Wednesday that a deal with American officials to keep the dissident in China was coerced by Chinese authorities who threatened his family.

Zeng Jinyan, a Beijing-based activist and the wife of prominent government critic Hu Jia, wrote several tweets saying activist Chen Guangcheng only agreed to stay in China because his family was threatened.

[Updated 9:04 a.m. May 2: Chen told the Associated Press he wants to leave the country and now fears for his safety.]


Zeng, who confirmed with The Times that her tweets were genuine, said Chen explained in a phone conversation that he wanted to leave the country but wouldn’t be allowed to be with his family again if he did.

Zeng said she was told by Chen’s wife that if her husband didn’t exit the embassy, she and her children would be forced to return to their village, where thugs armed with sticks were waiting for them.

[Updated 8:28 a.m. May 2: Chen echoed what Zeng said in an interview with the Associated Press, saying that a U.S. official told him that Chinese authorities threatened to beat his wife to death had he not left the American Embassy. A U.S. official denied knowledge of the threat, but said Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy, the AP reported.]

U.S. officials announced hours earlier that it had struck a deal to keep Chen in China after the activist escaped extralegal house arrest and spent six days in the embassy.

‘Mr. Chen made clear from the beginning he wanted to remain in China and that he wanted his stay in the United States Embassy to be temporary,’ said one U.S. official who requested anonymity while confirming for the first time that the activist had sought protection at the diplomatic site.

But in a statement while on a previously scheduled visit to Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that U.S. officials were uncertain about whether the Chinese government would fully follow through on its promises to Chen.

She said the activist had reached “a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task.”

She said Chen’s decision to leave the embassy reflected what he wanted to do, and U.S. commitment to human rights, and promised that the administration would remain committed to him.

“The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks, and years ahead,” she said.

Chen, 40, was reunited during the day with his wife and two children at a local hospital, where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries sustained during his escape from house arrest more than a week ago.

In an agreement carved out by U.S. and Chinese officials to resolve the situation, Chen would be relocated to a safe environment and allowed to attend a university where he will be free of legal harassment. American diplomats were assured they could check in on Chen to see if he was still being treated fairly.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials agreed to investigate Chen’s extralegal detention in his village of Dongshigu, where he was held without charge under house arrest for 19 months. During that time, he and his family were reportedly regularly beaten, harassed and denied medical attention.

Promises were also made not to punish supporters who helped Chen escape to the embassy.

China’s Foreign Ministry released a terse statement over state-run media that Chen had left the embassy on his own volition after staying there six days.

Chen told American diplomats he wanted to stay in China to continue his work.

Some activists were immediately skeptical of the deal to keep Chen in China.

Beijing-based human rights lawyer Teng Biao wrote on Twitter: ‘What’s important is that there’s no possibility for Chen to have absolute freedom if he stays in China. If he insists on staying and the U.S. government listened to promises from the Chinese government that Chen’s safety will be assured, the outcome will be devastating.’

A U.S.-based activist group also expressed doubts about the deal, saying it had received reports that Chen’s decision to leave the embassy was made reluctantly because ‘serious threat to his immediate family members were made by Chinese government’ if he refused to accept the Chinese government’s offer.

‘We are deeply concerned about this sad development if the reports about Chen’s involuntary departure [from the U.S. Embassy] are true,’ said Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid.

Chen enraged local officials in Shandong for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations and served a prison sentence on what’s widely agreed to be trumped-up charges of disrupting order. The government’s inaction during Chen’s subsequent house arrest was seen by human rights defenders as a signal of complicity.

In that time, Chen garnered worldwide attention from activists, diplomats and even Hollywood star Christian Bale. Scores of visitors hoping to check on Chen during his house detention were repelled by hired thugs.


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-- David Pierson in Beijing and Paul Richter in Washington