Questions hang over the fate of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who is now appealing for asylum in the United States.
A few hours after Chen’s departure from the U.S. embassy, the story about his release began to unravel.
The key question of whether Chen wanted to stay in China or leave for the United States overshadowed Thursday’s high-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing.
American ambassador to China Gary Locke told reporters Thursday that he had no doubts one day earlier, when U.S. officials escorted Chen from the embassy to a Beijing hospital.
“We asked him what did he want to do? Did he want to leave? Was he ready to leave? And we waited several minutes, and then suddenly, very excited, very eager, [he] said, “let's go,” in front of many, many witnesses," Locke recalled.
The ambassador urged patience and defended the agreement that reportedly would allow Chen to stay in China.
However Chen himself appeared to backtrack on the deal hours before Locke’s news conference. The lawyer told foreign journalists in phone conversations that he wants asylum in the United States for himself and his family.
Chen said he now thinks his rights and safety cannot be assured. Although he had initially thought about staying in China, Chen said he now has changed his mind and wants to leave the country.
U.S. officials say they are trying to get a better understanding of Chen's wishes and will seek to help him achieve his objectives.
At a regular briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin gave no details of Chen's arrangements to remain in China, and would not say if China will consider a travel request from him.
Liu said the incident constituted interference in China's internal affairs. He also called on the U.S. government to abide by Chinese law, but he did not repeat Beijing's demand that Washington apologize.
Call for help
New York University law professor Jerome Cohen says he was called in to help with negotiations earlier this week, after all sides - including Chen - had already agreed to what he described positively as an "unusual arrangement".
“It sounded like an exciting idea that was good and would keep him in China," Cohen said. "And although he knew there were risks, he knew it would be worthwhile, it would allow him to be reunited with the family, it would allow him, for the first time, to have a formal opportunity to study law and to develop cooperative relationships in China and outside, towards the building of a genuine legal system.”
Cohen says he believes American diplomats negotiated in good faith and the Chinese government has so far lived up to its end of the agreement. But he says he is worried that some human rights groups are now trying to influence Chen.
“We have to be careful, the human rights community has to be careful, especially, not to get into its own internecine conflict. I think this is a remarkable agreement and we have to test the Chinese government, to see whether it really will carry it out, and we have to carry it out. And it calls for a strong Chen Guangcheng, and that's going to take some time until he can recover from this ordeal,” Cohen said.
Fate of helpers
Another issue that activists say deserves attention is the fate of those who helped Chen escape last month from his highly-guarded house arrest.
Human Rights Watch's Sophie Richardson says she is especially concerned about the case of Nanjing activist He Peirong, also known as Pearl, who has not been heard from since Chen went to the embassy last week.
“We have no way of knowing whether she is still being detained in some way, whether she's been detained again or whether she is simply lying low,” Richardson said.
Chen is a 40-year-old self-taught lawyer who spent four years in prison after exposing forced abortions and sterilizations by Chinese family planning authorities. After being released from jail in September 2010, he had been illegally confined to his house and beaten by plainclothes thugs.
Chen made headline news when he fled to the U.S. embassy last month. He left the American mission Wednesday, and was reunited with his family at a Beijing hospital, where he is currently being treated for a broken foot.