Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚), the blind, “barefoot” lawyer who gained international attention when he was sentenced in 2006 to four years and three months in prison, was released today from the Linyi City Prison, Shandong Province. Chen was first detained in 2006 after filing a lawsuit against the city of Linyi on behalf of its inhabitants over the city’s policy of forced abortions and sterilizations, and was later convicted of “intentional damage of public property” and “gathering people to block traffic.”
Upon Chen’s release, one of Chen’s lawyers, Li Fangping (李方平), summed up Chen’s case: “Illegal detention; conviction based upon fabricated charges; unlawful imprisonment.” Li said, “The case of this blind rights defense lawyer bears witness to the sad state of the rule of law and human rights in China.”
Chen, a self-taught lawyer, has taken on sensitive cases since 1998, including defending the rights of farmers and the disabled. In prison, Chen was subjected to beatings and other abuses, and went on repeated hunger strikes in protest. During Chen’s imprisonment, his wife, Yuan Weijing (袁伟静), was put under house arrest and seldom allowed to visit Chen.
On the national level, over the past four years, the Chinese authorities have tightened control over China’s civil society. The ongoing crackdown has included attacks on lawyers; those who took on cases deemed politically sensitive and those who supported direct elections within lawyers’ associations have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, kidnapping, and detention. Many targeted lawyers had difficulties renewing their licenses to practice, and law firms have even been forced to close down.
Also in recent years, many of those released from prison continue to suffer what New York University China law expert Jerome A. Cohen calls “a new form of very expensive, de facto, legally-unauthorized punishment – indefinite house arrest, perhaps for life.” Cohen said, “I am deeply concerned that following his release, Chen Guangcheng will be subject to this new form of low-visibility punishment, including round the clock and endless isolation enforced by government-hired thugs.”
“The imprisonment of a blind lawyer who was devoted to improving the lives of his countrymen is a stain on the history of the development of the rule of law in China,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. HRIC urges the international community to continue to monitor Chen Guangcheng’s situation and the Chinese authorities to guarantee that both Chen and his family are able to exercise the freedoms protected by the Chinese constitution and international law.
Chen Guangcheng, born November 12, 1971, and blind since childhood, is a self-taught (“barefoot”) lawyer and activist in Shandong. In 1996, Chen traveled to Beijing to petition on the basis of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons (残疾人保障法) and succeeded in stopping the local government from illegally taxing him on various items. In 1998, he again traveled to Beijing to petition to stop the “two-fields system,” an illegal form of economic exploitation used by local officials. Chen also provided legal advice to the disabled on how to protect their rights, including suing the Beijing metro system to uphold the right of the disabled to ride the metro without charge. He and other human rights lawyers and academics aided villagers in protecting their rights, suing the Linyi municipal authorities over an official policy of forced abortions and sterilizations. In March 2006, Linyi authorities took Chen from his home and held him in an undisclosed location for over three months before formally detaining him on June 10 that year. In August 2006, Chen Guangcheng was convicted of “intentional damage of property” and “organizing people to block traffic,” and sentenced to four years and three months in prison. TIME named him as one of 2006's “Top 100 People Who Shape Our World.”
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