Updated at 2:30 p.m. EST on 2012-10-12
Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong are moving ahead with criminal proceedings against the nephew of New York-based dissident Chen Guangcheng, although the homicide charges filed against him earlier have been withdrawn, his father said on Friday.
Chen Kegui, who defended his family from an allegedly brutal attack by officials after his uncle's daring escape from house arrest in April, will no longer be charged with "intentional homicide," but with "intentional injury" instead, according to Chen Guangfu, his father and Chen Guangcheng's brother.
"The report at the hospital said the injuries caused were level nine injuries," Chen Guangfu said. "There are 10 degrees of injury, with first degree the most serious, and 10th degree the least serious."
"Now they are saying [he caused] injuries of the ninth degree."
The change in charges appears to signal a major shift in the attitude of the authorities in Shandong, who previously said they would try Chen Kegui for "intentional murder," which can carry the death penalty.
"From a legal point of view, there is a huge difference," Chen Guangfu said. "But there isn't much difference from Kegui's point of view, because they hold all the power. What they say, goes."
Chen Guangcheng said the downgrading of the charges did not go far enough and that before he left for the U.S., authorities had promised to protect his relatives.
"Back in May, the central government officials clearly stated to me that they would launch a thorough investigation into all the illegal actions against me by the Shandong local authorities for the past years. They also promised me that during the investigation, the safety of my family members would be ensured and our lawyers may be involved in the case," he said.
"All these pledges have not been fulfilled since May. Not only that, but the prosecution of Chen Kegui is still going on. What kind of message are they trying to send to the outside world?"
Attacked by officials
Chen Kegui defended himself with a kitchen knife when “local government officials and their hired thugs” broke into his home, dissident Chen Guangcheng, who is now living in New York, has said.
Several people were injured in the incident, including an official.
Chen Guangcheng said his nephew, who has been detained since May, was the victim of vengeful officials incensed at the blind activist's escape from house arrest, which had cast a global spotlight on human rights abuses in China.
Calls to the cell phones of both state-appointed lawyers representing Chen Kegui went unanswered during office hours on Friday.
But Beijing-based lawyer Ding Xikui, who was hired by Chen Kegui's family but prevented from meeting with him by police, said he plans to make another trip to his client's home county of Yinan soon, because Chen's case has now been handed to state prosecutors, paving the way for a trial.
"I heard about this news," Ding said. "When I tried to call the procuratorate, they didn't pick up the phone."
"We will go down there next week," he said. "We are legally [appointed], and their refusal to accept us [as Chen's lawyers] is illegal."
Rush to trial?
Shandong-based rights lawyer Liu Weiguo, who has followed Chen Kegui's case closely since he was detained by Yinan county police in May, said that Chen, if convicted, could face a jail term of anything from three to 10 years.
"Now, my main concern is that they'll try to push this through as a surprise attack ahead of the meeting," said Liu, in a reference to next month's 18th Party Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Chen Guangcheng's daring escape in April from his closely guarded home and subsequent flight to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he sought refuge for nearly a week, came just ahead of annual strategic dialogues between U.S. and Chinese officials, prompting a diplomatic crisis and frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The diplomatic crisis was defused after Chen was allowed to fly to New York, where he is now a special student in law at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute of New York University.
He has accused Beijing of failing to honor its pledge to investigate abuses that he and his family were subjected to in China.
The blind activist has said that he and his family experienced illegal detention and brutal beatings while under house arrest and that Beijing had promised him it would sack officials responsible for the mistreatment.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service and Zhang Min for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.