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Freed Chinese Activist Faces Heavy Security at Home

Chinese security forces surround and block access to the rural home of a self-taught activist lawyer who was released from prison after serving a four-year sentence.

Lawyer Chen Guangcheng, 38, returned Thursday to his home near Linyi, in Shandong province.

Chen became one of China's best known rights activists after he campaigned to stop authorities from forcing peasants to have abortions or be sterilized. In 2006, he was convicted of destroying public property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic. He was jailed for four years.

Human Rights Watch's Nicholas Bequelin describes Chen's new existence as a "life in limbo" - in which is he is no longer in prison, but still far from being free.

"It is an attempt by the Chinese government to have some sort of diplomatic deniability," Bequelin said. "They can tell other governments, 'well, this person is not in prison, not arrested,' even though in practice, this person is being silenced and they're not free of movement."

China often monitors activists freed from jail and restricts their movements.

Bequelin says it has been difficult for Chen's relatives to communicate with the outside world because their phones are constantly monitored. He says Chen, who is blind, also should be left alone because he is suffering from an illness that he contracted in prison.

The human rights advocate says there is a disruptive economic dimension to case. Many of Chen's relatives are farmers, whose lives have been affected by heavy police attention in recent years.

"They are surviving. Of course, it is very difficult for them to have a normal life and to engage in normal economic activities. The authorities are really depriving them of their livelihood," Bequelin said.

In recent years, Chinese authorities have tightened control over civil groups and rights activists. There have been many reports of lawyers who take on politically sensitive cases being harassed.

Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said she did not know the details of Chen's case But she repeated Beijing's standard position about dissidents and activists - that their cases are handled according to Chinese law.

Human rights groups in recent years have criticized China for tightening control over new communication technologies, in what the groups say is an effort to limit free speech.

China recently announced that people who buy cell phone numbers will have to register their personal details - a move authorities say is aimed at curbing rampant spam text messages.

Rights advocates, however, think the authorities want to track down cell phone users who tell people about protests via text messages.