Chinese authorities have withdrawn hundreds of security personnel from round-the-clock guard duty in the home village of escaped blind activist Chen Guangcheng as his relatives accuse officials of destroying evidence of abuse ahead of an official investigation.
"The guards who were watching [the village] have all left," Chen's brother, Chen Guangfu, said on Friday. "They demolished two guard-houses, where they slept, and where they beat up countless people who tried to visit Chen Guangcheng, in the space of a single night."
"They have even taken their litter. There isn't a single trace. My feeling is that they want to destroy any evidence."
Chen's daring escape in April from his closely guarded home in Shandong's Dongshigu village and 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 crisis was defused after Chen was allowed to fly to New York, where he is a special student in law at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute of New York University.
Hundreds of security guards had stayed at their posts at Dongshigu village, manning checkpoints, surveillance cameras, and guard-houses for several weeks after Chen fled.
Chen's fellow villagers told the Associated Press that they feel liberated by the removal of the guards.
Chen told the agency by phone from New York that security measures should have been removed long ago, pointing to a promise that a central government official had made to him in May.
"I feel that there is nothing to be happy about," said Chen, adding that his nephew, Chen Kegui, was still being held in a detention center and denied access to lawyers hired by his family.
Chen has repeatedly hit out at the charges, saying Chen Kegui acted in self-defense after a sudden and vicious attack by officials in the wake of his flight to Beijing.
Chen Guangfu said he had been given details on Wednesday at the Yinan county legal aid center of the two lawyers hired by the authorities to represent his son, who has been charged with "intentional homicide."
"They told me the names of the two lawyers, and I wanted to meet with them, but that wasn't possible," he said.
"I just managed to exchange a few words on the phone with one of them. I asked him if he had met with Kegui, and he said he had. I asked him how his injuries were, but he didn't give me a straight answer."
One of the lawyers, Wang Haijun, confirmed on Friday that he had been appointed to represent Chen Kegui, but declined to give further details.
"We are acting as defense lawyers, and our main priority is to protect the interests of the defendant," Wang said. "That includes his privacy, so in the absence of confirmation of your relationship to him, I can't tell you any more."
Meanwhile, Beijing-based rights lawyer Ding Xikui, who was appointed by Chen Kegui's family to represent him, said the authorities were still preventing him from meeting with Chen Kegui.
"They're not even picking up the phone now," said Ding. "I have no way of contacting them."
"I can only continue to negotiate with them, and see if it is possible to make a trip at some point in the future."
Last month, the Shandong branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party removed from office one of the province's most powerful law enforcement officials, Bai Jimin, in a move which analysts said could be linked to Chen's demand that officials who authorized the mistreatment of him and his family be investigated and punished.
However, Bai didn't receive any kind of public sanction, and was simply transferred to a less high-profile post at the provincial People's Congress.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.