China Aid Association
Advocate for China’s Weak Runs Afoul of the Powerful
By JOSEPH KAHN
Published: July 20, 2006
(BEIJING — July 19, 2006) Only a few years ago, Chen Guangcheng, a blind man who taught himself the law, was hailed as a champion of peasant rights who symbolized China’s growing embrace of legal norms.
Mr. Chen helped other people with disabilities avoid illegal fees and taxes. He forced a paper mill to stop spewing toxic chemicals into his village’s river. The authorities in his home province, Shandong, considered him a propaganda coup and broadcast clips from his wedding ceremony on television.
All that changed last year, when he organized a rare class-action lawsuit against the local government for forcing peasants to have late-term abortions and be sterilized. Mr. Chen, 35, is now a symbol of something else: the tendency of Communist Party officials to use legal pretexts to crush dissent.
On Thursday a court in Yinan County of Shandong Province is to hear charges that Mr. Chen destroyed public property and gathered a crowd to block traffic. His lawyers argue that he would have had trouble committing those crimes even if he could see. At the time they were said to have occurred, he was being guarded day and night by a team of local officials.
His case is typical of efforts to punish lawyers, journalists and participants in environmental, health and religious groups who expose abuses or organize people in a manner officials consider threatening. Like Mr. Chen, they are often accused of fraud, illicit business practices or leaking state secrets, charges that do not reflect the political nature of their offenses.
“Local officials made Chen’s house into a jail and turned him into a prisoner long before he faced any charges,” said Li Jinsong, one of his lawyers. “Then they concocted charges so they could send him to an actual jail.”
The purview of Chinese law was broad enough to allow a self-taught peasant like Mr. Chen, dubbed a “barefoot lawyer,” to emerge from obscurity and help set some legal precedents in his home province. Since he got into trouble, Mr. Chen has relied on a network of scholars and lawyers in Beijing to defend him.
But the law does not protect those who offend the powerful. Local Communist Party officials control prosecutors and judges in their domains, and they can use the legal system to carry out political persecutions.
“China has advanced to the point that officials have to pay attention to the law,” said Teng Biao, a legal expert at the China University of Political Science and Law and a supporter of Mr. Chen. “But in some cases, they put a superficial legal cover on an essentially illegal action.”
Officials in Shandong declined to answer questions about Mr. Chen, saying they could not discuss a pending court case.
Nature dealt Mr. Chen his biggest challenge. He lost his sight after a childhood illness and did not attend school until he was 18. When he did go to school, he quickly encountered legal problems.
China’s government exempts the blind from taxes and fees. But Mr. Chen often did not receive such benefits, according to relatives who asked to remain anonymous because the authorities have threatened to punish them for speaking to reporters. Determined to realize his legal rights, he studied law on his own, recruiting his four older brothers to read legal texts to him.
In 1994 he went to Beijing to protest violations of laws protecting the handicapped. While there, he took action against the Beijing subway authority because attendants would not let him ride free. He got favorable media attention and free subway tokens after that.
Rakishly handsome in his dark glasses, he became a popular legal crusader. He handled cases against the local sanitation bureau, the police and the bureau of commerce. A paper factory that spewed noxious waste into a river near his home was forced to suspend operations, making him a local hero.
So when residents of his home village of Dongshigu were ensnared in a coercive birth control campaign last spring that appeared to violate national laws, they turned to Mr. Chen.
Officials in the city of Linyi, which has a population of more than 10 million and contains Dongshigu, forced thousands of residents to undergo abortions or sterilization, according to people supporting Mr. Chen who cited local documents to support their claims.
Such tactics, common in the early days of China’s strict population control policies 25 years ago, are now illegal. The law says the authorities can levy fines only against people who exceed birth quotas. But forceful measures remain pervasive, because failure to reach population control targets can end an official’s prospects for promotion.
Mr. Chen publicized the allegations as he prepared a class-action lawsuit. The problem received widespread attention in the international news media and was at least initially taken seriously in Beijing.
The National Family Planning and Population Commission investigated. It reported last September on its Web site that it had uncovered abuses in Linyi and that it had taken steps to punish officials there.
But that did not protect Mr. Chen, his family or his neighbors in Dongshigu from retaliation.
When Mr. Chen visited Beijing in September to seek legal help, Linyi officials tracked him down, bundled him into a car and drove him 400 miles back home, Mr. Chen’s lawyers said.
From then until his formal arrest in June, Mr. Chen was confined to his house or to a government-run hotel. His telephone line was cut. There is no provision in Chinese law for informal incarceration of this kind, his lawyers say.
Mr. Chen’s relatives and neighbors in Dongshigu say the authorities stationed up to 70 uniformed and plainclothes police officers or hired thugs in the village. The police prevented Mr. Chen and his supporters from communicating with the outside world. In a dozen different encounters, they beat lawyers and journalists who tried to enter the village, lawyers involved in such encounters said.
Supporters of Mr. Chen said that the local authorities had long intended to take legal action against him but that they had been stymied by the fact that he had not committed any crime. By June they at last announced the grounds for his arrest: destroying property and blocking traffic.
The first charge refers to a confrontation in February between Dongshigu residents and the uniformed and plainclothes police officers guarding Mr. Chen in his home. Villagers pushed a police van and two government cars into a gully. They said they were enraged that the officers, described as idling away the hours outside Mr. Chen’s home, declined to make one of their cars available to take an ailing woman to the hospital during the Lunar New Year holiday.
The indictment against Mr. Chen says he told people to damage the cars. Villagers say that he had no role in the clash and that he was not permitted to meet or talk to villagers at the time.
The second charge stems from an incident in March. Mr. Chen was described as distraught that a friend had been beaten by local officials. He demanded to talk to someone in charge. In a change of tactics, his guards let him visit the village party headquarters and then hail a car on the main road to take him to the county center.
Guards followed him to the road and helped him flag down cars, witnesses to the event said. They then took photographs of Mr. Chen in the roadway with cars stopped around him — which were used as evidence that he had blocked traffic, his lawyer said.
Such charges might appear easy enough to contest in court. But Mr. Chen’s lawyers face formidable obstacles.
Mr. Li and other lawyers helping Mr. Chen said they had received death threats when visiting Linyi, one of which Mr. Li recorded on his cellphone. He said the police had declined to investigate. Villagers say they have been warned not to appear as witnesses for Mr. Chen.
When Mr. Li tried to enter the village early this month to take depositions, he said, he was surrounded by thugs. They told him to leave the area. When he refused, they pushed his car into a ditch and rolled it onto its roof. Mr. Li and a fellow lawyer were lightly injured. Much of the confrontation was captured surreptitiously on videotape by a supporter of Mr. Chen.
“We can hardly have high expectations of a fair trial,” says Mr. Teng, the legal scholar, “when criminals are in charge of the law.”.
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