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Activist Chen fears for relatives left behind
Updated 5/9/2012 12:20 PM ET
BEIJING — A week after he swapped the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for a closely guarded hospital room in the city center, Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng said he is worried that relatives left behind are at risk of torture.

"I will get my right to go abroad, I can't say when, but I will be able to leave," Chen told USA TODAY on Tuesday.

But he said he's worried about what will happen to his relatives in Dongshigu, the east China village he escaped from house arrest April 22 for the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing.

STORY: In China, story of Chen is not news

"I am very worried for my relatives, especially Kegui," he said of his nephew, who reportedly was detained in a clash with officials after they discovered Chen's escape.

"He may be tortured or mistreated," said Chen, 40. "A lawyer was found, but he has had his freedom restricted."

Chen's friends appear to be under close watch. Teng Biao, one of Chen's lawyers and friends, said Tuesday that he was unable to answer questions "as the police have forbidden me from giving media interviews."

A self-taught legal activist who has been blind since age 1, Chen was jailed for four years after standing up for women who were being forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations under China's family planning policies. Upon his release he was made a prisoner in his home by local officials.

Chen sparked an international crisis last month when he fled house arrest on his farm and managed to travel 300 miles to Beijing and take refuge at the U.S. Embassy. He arrived just ahead of high-level diplomatic talks here involving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Chen left U.S. protection last Wednesday after six days at the embassy under a U.S.-brokered deal that would have allowed him to study in another part of China. Fearful for his family's safety, he changed his mind and asked for U.S. help to leave China. In an apparent concession, Beijing said Friday that Chen may apply to study abroad.

Chen said he has been allowed no visitors since he was dropped off at the hospital to be treated for a foot injury he received during his escape. Chen said Tuesday he was hopeful that Chinese authorities will assist him in his application to study in the United States.

But Chen said he also wants China to investigate abuses against him and his family since 2005. On Monday, a representative visited Chen from the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, a government body that handles citizens' "petitions" against injustice, usually suffered at the grassroots level.

"I asked him to investigate all the illegal persecution suffered by me and my family since 2005, and to hold to account the officials responsible," Chen said Tuesday.

In the late 1990s, early his career of grassroots activism, Chen traveled to Beijing to petition against illegal taxation on disabled people and poor farmers in his home village and the surrounding area in east Shandong province. While Chen achieved some success back then, he acknowledged Tuesday that most petitions today "are unsuccessful."

The official "said he had been authorized by the central government" to investigate, said Chen. "Although in the end I don't know what authority that is, we must wait and see the results." Before then, "during the investigation, we must monitor to see if it is just, and whether it satisfies the people," he said.

The same official also was going to assist Chen and his family with the necessary travel procedures to leave China, he said. Even if Chen could leave the hospital, where he is bed-ridden with a cast on his broken right foot, it is unlikely he would dare travel back to his hometown to apply for a passport, as all Chinese are required to do.

"The central leaders have already made known their position; they will help me" with the formalities — but "he gave me no details on who would do what, and when," Chen said.

He said he had just one request of U.S. officials: "I hope the U.S. government will ask China to fulfill its promises. This is an agreement between two sides. Both must observe it."

Posted 5/8/2012 8:41 AM ET
Updated 5/9/2012 12:20 PM ET
Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife, Yuan Weijing, hold their son in 2005 in Shandong province, China.
By Joan Lebold Cohen, AP
Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife, Yuan Weijing, hold their son in 2005 in Shandong province, China.