Concern is growing over the plight of Chen Guangcheng, a prominent blind legal activist in China, after recent attempts to visit him failed and resulted in the beating, human rights groups say, of several supporters and detainment of at least three. U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates met in Washington Tuesday to discuss the case and what can be done to help Chen who remains under strict house arrest in his home village of Linyi in eastern Shandong province.
Human rights advocates say that on Sunday when supporters and rights defenders in China tried to travel to Chen Guangcheng's home, they were not only stopped but forcefully deterred from visiting the activist.
Sharon Hom is the executive director of Human Rights in China. "Eyewitnesses told us that over the weekend about 37 rights defenders and netizens who attempted to visit Chen were beaten by around 100 unidentified individuals. Many of them were seriously injured," she said.
In her testimony on Tuesday, Hom told a hearing of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China that supporters were stopped some 200 meters away from Chen's village.
She says that when police did arrive, three activists were taken away, their cellphones turned off and they have not been heard from since.
Despite such challenges and the fact that authorities are removing postings about Chen from the Twitter-like web site Weibo, about 100 people have already tried to visit his home.
Shanghai activist Feng Zhenghu has been gathering signatures in an online petition to free Chen and a blog has been set up online where supporters can post pictures of themselves in dark sunglasses just like Chen Guangcheng.
Concerns about Chen's condition have been growing since he was released from jail last year. The U.S. advocacy group ChinaAid says that in addition to being confined to his home, Chen and his wife endured a brutal four hour beating by local authorities in July in the presence of their elementary school daughter.
The group, quoting reliable sources says Chen also endured a similarly brutal beating in February after they managed to smuggle out a videotape documenting conditions of their house arrest.
Rights advocates and lawmakers are urging the U.S. government to put more pressure on the Chinese government and to mention Chen Guangcheng's case publicly.
However, Jerome Cohen, a China legal expert who testified at the same hearing, says we shouldn't overexaggerate the impact overt government efforts might have to improve the situation. "To be really effective they have to be accompanied not only by U.N. organization activities, but a lot of these more popular NGO [non-governmental organizations], spontaneous petitions, educational efforts, committee hearings like this. I think its got to be an overall package because I think then the Chinese government will show a response," he said.
So far, Chinese authorities have wavered little in Chen's case. Online petitions have helped, activists note, in helping Chen's daughter attend school.
She was previously barred, but now is accompanied to and from school by security agents, activists say.
Chen Guangcheng was jailed in 2006 after accusing local family planning officials of forcing women to undergo abortions or sterilization, in adherence to China's one-child policy.
Cohen says Chen's treatment that has followed his release from jail is more than just local vengeance. "This is part of a national strategy of the Communist Party and the central authorities for dealing with the current situation where they are confronted by increasing unrest, increasing foreign upset about lack of rule of law in China that comes up under many different contexts," he said.
To deal with this, he says, China is passing a growing number of laws, but selectively enforcing them when they want to. In Chen's case, activists and supporters argue that authorities have persistently ignored China's laws and his basic rights. They say Chen's case is part of a continuing and severe crackdown on lawyers, activists and rights advocates.