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Blind advocate for China's weak runs afoul of the powerful

Tue, 07/31/2012 - 10:58 -- admin

Joseph Kahn, New York Times; Beijing; July 19, 2006

This is the story of how a blind lawyer in China took on the authorities. Only a few years ago, Mr. Chen Guangcheng, a blind man who taught himself the law, was hailed as a champion of peasant rights who symbolised China's growing embrace of legal norms.

Mr. Chen helped other people with disabilities avoid illegal fees and taxes. He forced a paper mill to stop spewing toxic chemicals into his village's river. The authorities in his home province, Shandong, considered him a propaganda coup and broadcast clips from his wedding ceremony on television.

All that changed last year, when he organised a rare class-action lawsuit against the local government for forcing peasants to have late-term abortions and be sterilised. Mr. Chen, 35, is now a symbol of something else: the tendency of Communist Party officials, as with any government around the world, to use legal pretexts to crush dissent.

His case is typical of efforts to punish lawyers, journalists and participants in environmental, health and religious groups who expose abuses or organize people in a manner that officials consider threatening. Like Mr. Chen, they are often accused of fraud, illicit business practices or leaking state secrets, charges that do not reflect the political nature of their offenses.

The purview of Chinese law was broad enough to allow a self-taught peasant like Mr. Chen, dubbed a ‘barefoot lawyer’, to emerge from obscurity and help set some legal precedents in his home province. Since he got into trouble, Mr. Chen has relied on a network of scholars and lawyers in Beijing to defend him. But the law does not protect those who offend the powerful.

Nature dealt Mr. Chen his biggest challenge. He lost his sight after a childhood illness and did not attend school until he was 18. When he did go to school, he quickly encountered legal problems. China's government exempts the blind from taxes and fees. But Mr. Chen often did not receive such benefits. Determined to realise his legal rights, he studied law on his own, recruiting his four older brothers to read legal texts to him.

Soon he became a popular legal crusader. He handled cases against the local sanitation bureau, the police and the bureau of commerce. A paper factory that spewed noxious waste into a river near his home was forced to suspend operations, making him a local hero.

So when residents of his home village of Dongshigu were ensnared in a coercive birth control campaign last spring that appeared to violate national laws, they turned to Mr. Chen. Such tactics, common in the early days of China's strict population control policies 25 years ago, are now illegal. The law says the authorities can levy fines only against people who exceed birth quotas. But forceful measures remain pervasive, because failure to reach population control targets can end an official's prospects for promotion.

Mr. Chen publicised the allegations as he prepared a class-action lawsuit. The problem received widespread attention in the international news media and was at least initially taken seriously in Beijing. The National Family Planning and Population Commission investigated. It reported last September on its website that it had uncovered abuses in Linyi and that it had taken steps to punish officials there.

But that did not protect Mr. Chen, his family or his neighbors in Dongshigu from retaliation. Supporters of Mr. Chen said that the local authorities had long intended to take legal action against him but that they had been stymied by the fact that he had not committed any crime. By June they at last announced the grounds for his arrest: destroying property and blocking traffic. His lawyers argue that he would have had trouble committing those crimes even if he could see.

Mr. Chen's lawyers face formidable obstacles. Mr. Li and other lawyers helping Mr. Chen said they had received death threats. He said the police had declined to investigate. Villagers say they have been warned not to appear as witnesses for Mr. Chen.

"We can hardly have high expectations of a fair trial," says Mr. Teng, a legal scholar, "when criminals are in charge of the law."

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