US in talks with blind China activist after plea

The United States said Thursday it was in talks with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng about his future, after the blind activist expressed fears for his safety and pleaded to be taken abroad.

The campaigning lawyer, who escaped from house arrest and spent six days at the US embassy in Beijing until he left on Wednesday, is at the centre of a sensitive diplomatic row between China and the United States.

US officials have said Chen, who riled Chinese authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilisations under the government's "one-child" policy, left the embassy after Beijing pledged he and his family would be treated "humanely".

But Chen has since said he felt under pressure to leave the embassy, fearing for the safety of his family, who suffered repeated abuses at the hands of local officials in their home town.

On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Chen and his wife had made clear they no longer wanted to stay in China.

"It is clear now that in the last 12 to 15 hours they as a family have had a change of heart on whether they want to stay in China," Nuland said in Beijing, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is taking part in previously scheduled talks.

"We need to consult with them further, get a better sense of what they want to do, and together consider their options," she told reporters.

Nuland said that US officials on Thursday spoke twice with Chen by telephone and also spoke with his wife "for a long time".

US State Department officials have been adamant that Chen never requested asylum and strongly denied allegations that he was pressured to leave the embassy.

Any renewed abuse against Chen could prove to be a political nightmare for Barack Obama's administration, which has faced calls to show its commitment to defend human rights in China as the US president runs for re-election.

Speaking to AFP on Thursday, Chen said he did not initially want to seek asylum overseas, but changed his mind after emerging from the embassy due to concern for his safety and that of his family.

"I want to go overseas. I want the US to help me and my family. They helped me before," he said by phone from a Beijing hospital where he is being treated for a foot injury suffered during his dramatic escape on April 22.

"I don't feel safe here. I want to leave."

Chen, 40, told the BBC that after arriving in hospital Wednesday Chinese officials had prevented US officials from visiting him.

"I got to know that they were prevented from coming in, not that they are not coming in," Chen said, adding that his wife told him CCTV cameras were being installed at their home.

He also told CNN that since his escape his wife had been tied to a chair for two days by police who threatened to beat her to death in his home province of Shandong, in northeastern China.

And he told the Daily Beast website he wanted to leave China with Clinton, who has repeatedly criticised Chen's treatment in the past.

"My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the US on Hillary Clinton's plane," said Chen, who spoke to Clinton by telephone on Wednesday.

Leading Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng said Washington made a "serious mistake" in allowing Chen to leave its embassy and said there was "no chance" the Chinese government would allow Chen to leave the country.

Chen's flight came despite round-the-clock surveillance at his house in Shandong, where he has alleged that he and his family suffered severe beatings after he ended a four-year jail term in 2010.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said there were serious concerns over whether the Chinese government would honour commitments it made to the US government not to persecute Chen.

"Not only does the Chinese government have an appalling track record on human rights, but Chen himself has also already reported receiving threats to his family's safety by government officials," she added.

At Thursday's opening of the two-day "Strategic and Economic Dialogue", Clinton did not single out Chen, but told her Chinese hosts including President Hu Jintao that they cannot deny the "aspirations" of their citizens "for dignity and the rule of law".

However, in his own opening remarks, Hu called for the United States and China to respect each other's concerns and warned that any worsening of relations posed "grave" risks for the world.

Clinton on Wednesday said the United States remained "committed" to Chen and US officials said they had received assurances from China that the legal campaigner could be safely reunited with his family.

Despite Wednesday's agreement, Beijing demanded that the United States apologise for what it called "interference" in its affairs.

No apology has been forthcoming from Washington, but Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Chen's flight to the embassy presented "an extraordinary circumstance with very unusual parameters, and we don't expect it to be repeated".

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