Updated at 2:36 p.m. EST on 2012-04-27
Blind Shandong legal activist Chen Guangcheng has escaped from house arrest after being held for 18 months alongside his family with no access to medical care, a U.S.-based rights group said on Friday, amid reports that he is currently under the protection of U.S. officials negotiating with Beijing for his safe passage overseas.
"Dear Premier Wen," Chen said in a videotaped message to China's premier Wen Jiabao sent from an undisclosed location and posted on YouTube via the overseas Chinese news site Boxun. "I have escaped with great difficulty."
Chen escaped earlier this week, and is now "100 percent safe in Beijing," the Texas-based Christian rights group ChinaAid said in a statement on its website, quoting "a source who brought Chen to Beijing."
The Washington Post reported that Chen had been given refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The embassy would neither confirm nor deny that he was there, and the U.S. State Department declined comment on the case in a press briefing on Friday.
“As far as I know, he is in the U.S. Embassy, the safest place in China,” another prominent Chinese activist, Hu Jia, was quoted saying.
“He is in the U.S. Embassy, or under the shelter of diplomats at least. I’m not sure if he’s going to ask for political asylum or not. I don’t know if he still wants to stay in China.”
Many were involved
ChinaAid gave no details of exactly how Chen managed to elude capture by the hundreds of security personnel hired to guard his home, but implied that a large number of people were involved.
"We admire Chen’s extraordinary courage and his unwavering desire to fight for the fundamental rights owed every Chinese citizen,” the group's founder and president Bob Fu said in a statement.
"We urge the U.S. government and other democratic nations to show the courage of their convictions and protect this brave rights defender."
ChinaAid said it had briefed the U.S. State Department and congressional and White House officials about Chen’s situation.
Rights activist Wang Xuezhen, who fled to the U.S. recently to escape official harassment over her public campaign on Chen's behalf, said negotiations would take place over the former rights lawyer's future very soon.
"According to my understanding, the Sino-U.S. dialogue is about to begin, and China also has it in mind to give Chen Guangcheng a way out of this," Wang said.
"If the Chinese Communist Party doesn't give the nod, I don't think it will be easy to just take him away," Wang said, adding: "The U.S. human rights negotiators are already in Beijing."
Wang declined to say exactly how Chen had escaped. "As for who got him out of there, I can't tell you. But it was a concerted and collaborative effort by everybody," she said.
China's foreign ministry declined on Friday to comment on reports that blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing following his escape after 18 months of house arrest.
"We have also seen these reports," spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular news briefing in Beijing. "China currently has no information to offer."
Chen's escape comes ahead of a visit to China next week by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly called for him and his family to be released from house arrest.
Reports that Chen had entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing continued to circulate online, echoing the case of dissident Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi, who was forced into exile with his wife in 1990, and died earlier this month at the age of 76.
Shenzhen-based democracy activist Zhu Jianguo said that "100 percent safe" could only refer to a foreign diplomatic mission.
"I think that the U.S. Embassy is what they meant when they said that Chen Guangcheng was 100 percent safe," Zhu said. "
"The only place [former Chongqing police chief] Wang Lijun had to run to was the U.S. consulate in Chengdu," he said.
Wang spent a night at the U.S. consulate on Feb. 6, reportedly sharing information with officials there on links between now-ousted Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai's wife and the death of a British businessman.
Call for investigation
Nanjing-based rights activist He Peirong, known by her online nickname @pearlher, tweeted shortly after the news of Chen's escape broke:
"On April 22, Chen Guangcheng managed to slip through the guards watching him and escape from the village. He found a way to contact me, and I drove to pick him up and take him out of Shandong, so he could be hidden in a safe place," He wrote.
"If he isn't in that safe place, then he can only be in the hands of the Beijing police."
Meawhile, Chen released a lengthy online video in which he called directly on Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to open an investigation into the treatment meted out to him and his family during the last 18 months.
In the video, which circulated via non-Chinese social media site Google+ on Friday, a thin-looking, unshaven Chen was shown sitting against a tall, decorative curtain suggestive of a large, official room.
Addressing the camera directly, Chen gave the fullest account yet of his experiences with his family under house arrest at their home in Dongshigu village, Yinan county, warning of possible "insane revenge attacks" on his wife, mother and daughter following his escape.
"My mother, my wife and my child are still there, suffering this oppression, and I am afraid that they will be subjected to insane revenge attacks," Chen said, calling for immediate action from the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.
"When they beat up my wife, they broke her bones. To this day you can feel where the bones are sticking out. Then, being utterly without humanity, they refused her access to medical treatment," he said, also describing attacks on himself and his elderly mother, who was prevented from going out to buy food for the family in December, sparking concerns for the family's lives.
"I was very worried ... about our safety, which is why I started to call on people outside to pay attention to what was happening to us," Chen said.
He hit out at the "shameless, inhumane" officials from his hometown, who had hired hundreds of people at times to ensure that no one was able to visit the family. Many tried, including most notably Hollywood actor Christian Bale, who, together with a CNN camera crew, was repelled by a gang of stone-throwing security guards and chased away from Dongshigu last year.
A large portion of the video was given over to a list of all of the names of the officials and hired thugs who beat Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijiing, in a four-to-five hour attack last July.
ChinaAid said it was also concerned about the fate of He Peirong, "one of the friends who helped drive Chen on April 22 from his home in Dongshigu village ... to a safe location in another province."
"He Peirong was in communication with ChinaAid when she was arrested at her home in Nanjing, coastal Jiangsu province, on Friday at 11:11 a.m. She has not responded to later efforts to reach her," the group said.
It said police have also detained Chen's older brother and nephew, Chen Guangfu and Chen Kegui for "stabbing government officials."
Rights groups said they are concerned at the crackdown on members of Chen's family following his escape.
"We’re very concerned that authorities appear to have launched a round of retaliation against Chen’s family, relatives, and activists who assisted Chen Guangcheng’s flight for freedom,” said Renee Xia, international director of the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
"The fact that Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, managed to evade their internationally infamous incarceration tactics not only has caused the incompetent local authorities to completely lose face, but has also jeopardized the ‘stability maintenance funding’ allocated for their thuggish acts," Xia said in a statement on the group's website.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.