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(New York) - Chinese authorities should immediately release Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer persecuted for exposing official abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Since his arbitrary detention in August 2005, Chen has been subject to physical abuse by police, and local officials have repeatedly interfered with attempts by Chen’s legal team to interview witnesses and gather evidence. Chen is due to be tried on July 20 for intent to damage public property and inciting others to join him to disrupt traffic.

“When Chen tried to make proper use of China’s legal system, the response wasn’t due process,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “It was house arrest, physical abuse, and then ‘disappearance’ by local authorities. His case is a textbook example of how little the rule of law really means in China.”

In March 2005, Chen learned from villagers that officials in Linyi, a city in Shandong province, had subjected thousands of people trying to evade restrictive population control laws to late-term forced abortions, midnight raids, beatings and compulsory sterilization. Chen then began his own investigation into the allegations. In June 2005, he filed a class-action lawsuit, and then traveled to Beijing to discuss the case with legal scholars, lawyers and foreign journalists. Soon after, the lawsuit was rejected.

On August 12, 2005, local officials imprisoned Chen and his immediate family in their home and shut off all outside communication. They were detained there for seven months. Chen did manage to escape in September, but was apprehended in Beijing and returned to Linyi. When he tried again to escape in October, local authorities failed to protect him against beatings by civilians apparently working in connection with the police to help enforce his isolation. On March 11, 2006, Yinan county police officers “disappeared” Chen for three months. It was not until June 11, 2006, that officials acknowledged he had been formally detained in the Yinan County Detention Center. On June 21, the Yinan County People’s Procuratorate approved Chen’s arrest.

That same day, Chen’s lawyers, Li Jinsong and Zhang Lihui, were able to visit him, but from then on, authorities escalated the pressure to deny access to defense witnesses and materials for all the lawyers and activists involved. On June 22, police officers took lawyer Li in for questioning. Unknown assailants beat three other lawyers defending villagers jailed for supporting Chen. Police officers first looked on as the cameras of the villagers’ lawyers were smashed, then took them in for questioning. When Li Jinsong and Li Subin, another member of Chen’s legal team, tried to visit Chen’s wife on June 23, they were stopped and beaten by guards. The following day, all the lawyers involved returned to Beijing. Li Jinsong and Li Subin tried returning to Shandong on June 27, only to be harassed again while the police again stood by. Some 20 men overturned the lawyers’ car and police took Li Jinsong in for questioning once again.

“Chen’s story – his disappearance, letting unknown assailants beat him and his legal team, and holding him for months without any judicial process – spotlights the failings of the Chinese judiciary,” said Richardson. “China should free Chen and welcome his exposure of official abuses, instead of continuing to persecute him.”

For more information see the Chronology of the Chen Guangcheng case.

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