Rights groups have hit out at a Hollywood movie studio for filming a comedy in Linyi city, Shandong province, close to where Chinese authorities have held a blind activist and his family under house arrest for more than a year.
In a statement on Monday, Relativity Media defended its decision to film part of its comedy "21 and Over," in Linyi, close to Dongshigu village, where activist Chen Guangcheng is being held under close guard along with his wife and small daughter.
"From its founding, Relativity Media has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of human rights and we would never knowingly do anything to undermine this commitment," the company said in a statement e-mailed to the Associated Press.
Chen, 39, a self-taught lawyer who has persistently campaigned for the rights of ordinary people under China's draconian family-planning regime, was handed a four-year, three-month jail term for “damaging public property and obstructing traffic” in August 2006.
Chen had exposed abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations by local family planning officials under China’s “One Child” policy, as well as official harassment and attacks on families who exceeded local birth quotas.
'A warrior for women's rights'
Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, has called for a greater awareness of Chen's plight throughout the international community.
"Chen sacrificed everything to tell the world the brutal truth about forced abortion in China," Littlejohn said in a statement on the group's website.
"He is a warrior for women’s rights. Now it’s our turn to sacrifice on behalf of Chen by fighting for his freedom.”
Bob Fu, founder of the Christian rights group China Aid, also criticized Relativity for making the film, calling the continuing house arrest of Chen, his wife Yuan Weijing, and daughter Chen Kesi "unconscionable."
"His mistreatment under house arrest is deplorable, including beatings, constant surveillance, as well as confiscation of his computer, cell phone, books, his blind cane, and the toys of his young daughter," Fu said in a joint statement with Littlejohn.
Human Rights Watch senior Asia researcher Nicholas Becquelin meanwhile said in an interview with AP that Relativity appears "eager to assume the role of being a prop in Linyi's propaganda campaign to cast itself as a civilized municipality that promotes culture."
"The reality is that it is not only holding one of China's most prominent human rights defenders, but [is] going to extraordinary lengths to persecute him," Becquelin said.
Rights groups are calling for international pressure to be stepped up on Beijing to ensure the family's release.
Relativity first announced the collaboration in an online statement last week.
Its press release quoted the Zhang Shajun, municipal Party secretary of Linyi as saying: "Linyi is a beautiful city and we welcome international filmmakers to come to Linyi to make beautiful worldwide films."
Supporters beaten, robbed
The controversy came as the latest wave of activists tried and failed over the weekend to visit Chen, who has been held under the guard of armed men since his release from a three-year, four-month jail term in September 2010.
Activist Peng Zhonglin said he had arrived on Sunday along with 37 other activists in Yinan county, where Dongshigu village is located.
"I saw a lot of people who looked like state security police ... as well as a bunch of young men who looked like they were fighters," Peng said.
"At about 1.00 p.m., we were walking along the 205 national highway to Dongshigu and ... a group of around 60 young people of no clear identity came out of the woods and starting beating us."
"When they were done beating us, they robbed us," Peng said.
His story is the latest in a string of similar reports from activists and well-wishers who have tried to visit Chen.
He said five people were injured in the attack.
"About 20 people sustained light injuries, while about five were seriously injured," he said. "One guy's hand was broken."
No help from police
Peng said the activists had called the police, but to no avail.
An officer who answered the phone at the local police station said he hadn't heard about the incident.
"No, I didn't hear about this, so I don't know about this matter," the officer said.
An official who answered the phone at the Shandong provincial police department gave a similar response.
Nanjing-based activist He Peirong said there are several lookout points in the village near Chen's house, built specially to intercept activists and visitors.
"They have brought in more people and ... expanded across a wider area," He said. "They even have people at the Linyi railway station."
Meanwhile, Shanghai-based petitioner and rights activist Mao Hengfeng said she had joined in the latest attempt to visit Chen.
"There were more than 100 thugs there, and they were pretty fierce; they had definitely been trained," Mao said. "They fight with their hands and their feet, more than 10 beating up a single person."
"We didn't fight back. They beat us and chased us off at the same time," she said. "They didn't stop until a lot of people had gathered to watch, then they took our cell phones and cameras."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to answer questions about Chen on Monday.
"I don't know anything about the situation surrounding Chen Guangcheng," Hong told a regular news briefing.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.