China dissident Chen Guangcheng escapes house arrest

One of China's best known dissidents, Chen Guangcheng, has escaped from house arrest and has released a video addressed to Premier Wen Jiabao. In it he makes three demands, including one that Mr Wen investigate what Mr Chen, who is blind, calls the brutal beating up of his family members. Rights activists say Mr Chen slipped out of his home in Dongshigu town in Shandong province on Sunday. His whereabouts are unclear, but supporters say he is safe in Beijing. Unconfirmed reports say Mr Chen may have taken refuge in a diplomatic mission. Mr Chen, 40, had been under house arrest since he was released from a four-year jail sentence in 2010.

In the video, delivered from a darkened room and posted online by Boxun, a Chinese dissident news website based in the United States, Mr Chen asks that:

Premier Wen investigate and prosecute local officials Mr Chen says beat up his family members
The safety of his family be ensured
Corruption in general in China be dealt with and punished according to the law
Mr Chen names some local officials who told him that they "do not care about the law" and that "a few hundred people" were hired by the local government to "lock down" the village he lives in.

The Chinese authorities have come under international criticism for their treatment of him. At one point his daughter was barred from school. Many sympathisers who have tried to visit his home say they have been beaten up. In the video, Mr Chen says: ''I may be free but my worries are for my family… my wife, my child, my mother. Perhaps because of my leaving, they may become the target of more brutal abuse.'' The plight of Mr Chen has become famous around the world. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called for his release and is due to visit Beijing next week. An activist based in the United States who has been in close contact with Mr Chen confirmed that the dissident had left Shandong - about eight hours' drive from Beijing.

"Now I can share with you Chen is now in the 100% safe location in Beijing. That's how much I can share with you,'' Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, based in Texas in the US, told the BBC via email. Another activist based in China, He Peirong, who has been campaigning for his freedom, told various sources that she drove him to "a safe place" outside Shandong. There are also unconfirmed rumours that Mr Chen is at the US embassy in Beijing. The US embassy ''would not comment'', says an Associated Press news report. In the same report, Ms He denied the rumours published in Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, saying that she had spoken to people at the embassy.

"I can tell you he's not at the US embassy, and he's not in Shandong,'' she told AP. The authorities appear to be moving against those believed to have been involved in Mr Chen's escape. Reports on Friday said that local authorities had surrounded the house of Mr Chen's brother, Chen Guangfu, and nephew, Chen Kegui, in Dongshigu, near Linyi...

The fact that Chen Guangcheng has chosen to address Premier Wen Jiabao rather than President Hu Jintao or other leaders suggests he wants to challenge Wen Jiabao to put into practice his repeated calls for political reform and action to root out corruption among officials. Wen Jiabao often presents a more caring side than most in the leadership, frequently appearing in disaster areas and showing sympathy with the victims. In this case, however, it is highly unlikely that Premier Wen - or anybody else in the Chinese leadership for that matter - will respond to Mr Chen's request.

Nevertheless, Mr Chen's dramatic escape and videotape once again put his situation in the spotlight of international attention. Awkward questions will be asked of Chinese officials at news briefings, and human rights organisations are likely to resume putting pressure on the authorities in China over the treatment of Mr Chen and his family. While dissidents like Chen Guangcheng pose a constant headache to the authorities, they themselves have few options. If they leave China and start a life in exile in the West, they gain freedom, but lose contact with their families, relatives and friends.

Chinese activist fears 'insane retribution' on family after escape:

In a video message, Chen confirmed he was beaten and said 90 to 100 local officials were involved in his detention. He expressed "extreme concern" about retaliation against his family. Chen confirmed reports about his maltreatment that have appeared over the years. "The truth was even worse," he said. "I formally made three requests to Premier Wen Jiabao. First, severely punish criminals. Second, look into this yourself, and third, send a special investigation team to find out the truth." Chen is believed to have used the cover of darkness in which his blindness – he lost his sight at the age of five – gave him an advantage over his captors. He previously attempted to dig a tunnel without success.

It is not yet clear how Chen evaded the officials, police and plainclothes thugs who have been permanently camped in and around his home in Linyi since his release from prison in 2010. But activists said it was not an individual, opportunistic bid for freedom. "This wasn't a sudden thing. In order to escape from a place with so many guards must have taken a great deal of planning," said Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch. Chen's exact whereabouts are unknown. Several sources said he was in a place that was safe from the scrutiny of security agencies, prompting speculation that he may have taken refuge in a foreign embassy or consulate. The US embassy has declined to comment on the case.

According to the US-based group China Aid, Chen was "100% safe" in Beijing. But the group said that the activist He Peirong, one of the people who helped Chen flee, was arrested at her home in Nanjing on Friday morning. He, who is said to have been in close contact with the Chen family, had earlier told CNN that Chen's hands were trembling, but his spirits were high. She said he was injured in the escape...

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