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A blind Chinese activist, one of the country's most prominent, has made an audacious escape from house arrest and is safe from Chinese authorities, according to his supporters.
Yet days after Chen Guangchen fled his home, it's not clear exactly where he is. A diplomatic source indicates that he is inside the U.S. embassy, but this has not been confirmed officially.
Chen has attracted international attention with his efforts to prevent forced illegal abortions in China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out in support of him.
He has attracted high-profile visitors to his house in Linyi in eastern China. Actor Christian Bale tried to visit Chen in December, but was assaulted by local thugs. Dozens of these men have surrounded Chen's house day and night for the past 18 months.
Yet somehow, five days ago, Chen slipped out, evading the omnipresent security. Supporters drove him to Beijing.
A Video Addressed To China's Premier
Chen has now released a video saying he is safe, but giving no details of his whereabouts.
In the video, Chen asks China's Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate brutal beatings of his family members.
"This case is too inhumane and damages our party's image," he says in the video. "Dozens of men broke into my house and beat my wife up. They held her down on the floor and covered her with a quilt. Then they punched and kicked her for several hours. They also beat me violently."
Chen is a self-taught lawyer who has been blind since childhood. He is best known for exposing forced abortions by local officials. He served four years in prison for "disrupting traffic."
After being released, his own house effectively became his new jail. In the video, Chen describes how security agents accompanied his 6-year-old daughter to school every day and searched her schoolbag.
He voices fears of "insane retribution" against his family. He says local officials made money from guarding him, so had no incentive to stop.
"At a local level, they don't want to deal with my case," Chen says. "Those who make policy don't want to solve it, since they fear their crimes will be exposed. And those who implement it are absolutely corrupt."
Escape Sets Off An Uproar
As word got out that Chen had fled, it touched off an uproar in his village. This was captured in a panicked phone call made by Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, which was recorded.
Dozens of men, Chen Kegui says, attacked him and his father. He describes a bloody fight, and he acknowledges he stabbed his attackers.
"They hit my head with really big sticks," Chen Kegui says. "I had to fight back. But they saw I was not scared, so they left. I'm afraid of being captured by them and being beaten to death."
Now a local government website says Chen Kegui has fled and is also being sought by police.
Activists Fear Crackdown
Another activist who helped Chen Guangcheng get away, He Peirong, has now been detained, according to Bob Fu, a U.S.-based activist for China Aid.
Fu says the symbolism of Chen's escape is striking.
"He wants to make his voice heard by walking out of his home, despite the tight security and surveillance," Fu says. "He sends a strong message that Chinese [security forces] are not almighty God."
Chen has had high-level support. But any asylum attempt at the U.S. Embassy would likely lead to a major diplomatic dispute, and Chen's position is very vulnerable.
"What makes Chen's case so difficult for the authorities is that he has become the poster boy of the activist lawyers who are fighting for ordinary citizens' rights," says Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. He says this escape will likely not improve the human rights landscape.
"The parallel here would be when Liu Xiaobo got the Nobel Peace Prize," Bequelin says of the activist who won the award in 2010, though he was not allowed to leave China to receive it in Norway. "There was a moment of fleeting joy among human rights activists. That was followed by one of the harshest crackdowns among the human rights community in years."
China's leaders are now struggling to contain the fallout from the downfall of a powerful politician, Bo Xilai.
With a slowing economy and a major political crisis, China's coming transition of power is looking shakier than it did a few months ago. This new spotlight on human rights violations is expected to further unsettle the government.
Update at 1:29 a.m. ET: A U.S.-based human rights group says Chen is under the protection of U.S. officials. China Aid said the activist was in Beijing and that high-level talks were underway, but U.S. and Chinese officials have refused to comment.
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