BEIJING — Suddenly the guard posts came down and the hired toughs who manned them melted away, restoring an air of freedom this week to a village that authorities turned into a prison to keep blind activist Chen Guangcheng under house arrest for nearly two years.
The checkpoints, surveillance cameras and other measures had remained in place even though Chen fled Dongshigu village six weeks ago for sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and ultimately went to New York to study. While directed at Chen, the security restrictions made life uncomfortable for his fellow villagers, who felt liberated with their removal.
"Finally we can sleep at night," said a villager who only gave her family name, Du, because the return to normalcy still felt uncertain. "In the past you could always hear footsteps from patrolmen and car noises at night, and the dogs barked."
"You no longer need to stop at checkpoints when you leave or enter the village. You can now walk down the road," said Du, a mother in her 20s who also farms. "I feel more at ease and happier."
So thorough was the cleanup this past weekend that locals said the surveillance cameras trained on Chen home had been removed and the high voltage street lamps dimmed. Two adjoining huts built at the village's entrance to house the guards – and where outsiders trying to visit Chen had been beaten – had been torn down. Even the trash they piled up had been taken away.
"It was as if the whole thing evaporated," said Chen's older brother, Chen Guangfu, who lives in the village with several others in the Chen family. "I feel liberated."
The persisting of the security barriers even after Chen's escape had raised questions about whether local authorities seemed intent on punishing other members of the family and the villagers who helped him flee. His nephew was taken into custody after Chen's escape.
Chen said by phone from New York that security measures should have been removed long ago, pointing to a promise that a central government official made to him in May.
"I feel that there is nothing to be happy about," said Chen. "Most importantly, (his nephew) Chen Kegui is still being held in a detention center and his lawyers still cannot see him."
Blinded by fever in infancy, Chen taught himself law and became known for defending the rights of poor farmers and the disabled in the wheat, soybean and peanut farming country of Shandong province. His exposure of forced abortions and sterilizations during an enforcement campaign for the government's one-child policy embarrassed local officials.
Over the nearly seven years since, he was either in prison or under house arrest, and his treatment carried the taint of a vendetta.
Rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, a friend of Chen Guangcheng, said local authorities likely got rid of the surveillance to destroy evidence ahead of a promised investigation by the central government.
"If Beijing wants to go through the motion, it can do so" with the absence of evidence, Jiang said. "But if Beijing wants a real investigation, it can still do so because there are plenty of witnesses."
Calls to the local town police were unanswered, and employees in the government office at Yinan county, which oversees Dongshigu, said they were not clear about the removal of security.
Five people from Dongshigu and a nearby village corroborated the weekend cleanup and said that they were relieved now that the community is free of guards for the first time since 2005.
"I feel much relaxed now," said a villager who also gave only her surname, Liu. "No one is blocking roads and keeping watch on the village."
Liu also expressed her puzzlement. "Why didn't they do it in broad daylight instead of removing the security at night?" Liu said.
With the security gone, much remains unsettled in Dongshigu. Chen Kegui is charged with attempted murder after he fought with local officials who stormed into his house looking for Chen Guangcheng after his escape. The nephew has been unable to see the lawyers his family wants to represent him.
Instead, the court has appointed two lawyers from the same law firms that defended Chen Guangcheng in his 2006 trial.
Chen Guangfu said the firms did not provide much defense then. "All they said in court was, 'no objection,'" the brother said.
During the 19 months since Chen Guangcheng was released from prison into house arrest, local officials and the people they hired sometimes beat Chen and his wife, roughed up his mother and harassed their young daughter. Some of the hired toughs came from the village or surrounding communities, getting paid 100 yuan, or $16, a day to chase away unwanted visitors and torment the Chen family.
Chen's supporters also welcomed the end of heavy security, seeing it as a possible sign that Beijing is acknowledging the unfairness of local authorities.
"I feel this is a step in the right direction," said He Peirong, an activist who aided Chen's escape by driving him away from the village. "It goes to show the government is not unchangeable but that it can make adjustments."
Associated Press writer Gillian Wong contributed to this report.