BEIJING — A brother of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng said Wednesday that the family still faces persecution from authorities despite assurances that it would be treated in accordance with Chinese law when the activist was allowed to travel to the U.S. after escaping from house arrest.
The self-taught rights lawyer's escape from house arrest in eastern China last April set off a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Washington before he eventually was allowed to move to the United States. U.S. officials have said Beijing gave assurances that Chen's relatives would be treated according to the law.
But Chen's eldest brother, Chen Guangfu, said Wednesday that his son had been threatened with life imprisonment if he should appeal his 39-month sentence for assault. He was sentenced in November in a summary trial, seen as retaliation by local officials angered by his uncle's escape.
The latest accusations of harassment came a day after Chen Guangcheng told a U.S. congressional panel in Washington that "persecution of my family has never stopped."
A court convicted the nephew of attacking officials who stormed into his house looking for the activist, but his family believed Chen Kegui acted out of self-defense after he and his parents had been beaten.
Before the trial, local authorities did not let family members see Chen Kegui or hire their own lawyers to defend him. Lawyers were instead appointed to him, and his parents were barred from attending the hurried trial.
The U.S. State Department then called on China to review the case, saying its handling was contrary to Beijing's assurances to Washington that Chen's relatives would be treated in accordance with the law.
On Wednesday, department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. was deeply concerned by reports that prison officials abused Chen Kegui during his ongoing imprisonment and that local authorities continue to harass his family members. He urged the Chinese government to treat Chen Kegui fairly and with dignity.
Chen Guangfu said he met with a rights lawyer in Beijing on Wednesday about appealing his son's sentence. He said the effort was likely to be fruitless, but that he would still try.
"Since the law has given us the right to appeal, we will go through the procedure," Chen said, though he added that "we do not believe in Chinese law anymore."
He said his son was visited in jail in the city of Linyi in eastern Shandong province by unidentified officials – likely either jail wardens or police officers – who told him that he would be locked up forever if he appealed. Chen said officials used the same tactic before his son's trial last year, even hinting that his son's 4-year-old child might suffer if he did not cooperate, although Chinese law gives the convicted the right to appeal.
In March, a local township official attempted to pick up the 4-year-old boy from kindergarten but failed to give an explanation when she was confronted, Chen Guangfu said.
"She said she was told by the township to do that, but she refused to tell me the purpose," he said.
On another occasion, Chen said he was followed by a man in a helmet and an army overcoat. He said he also has noticed several men have stayed overnight in a car at his village but have never been able to confront them and identify them.
"I think our personal safety is in their hands," Chen said.
Chen has been making similar complaints for the past several months as he tries to get his son freed.
Calls to the propaganda office of Linyi were unanswered Wednesday.
In written testimony to the U.S. panel, Chen Guangcheng criticized China's harassment of his family and its human rights record.
"When it can willfully break agreements in a case that has attracted the world's attention," Chen wrote, "how can we expect it to improve the human rights situation in other areas and to take up its international responsibilities and obligations?"
Chen called for the U.S government to make public all written and oral diplomatic agreements it made with China on his case and how his family was to be treated.
Ventrell, the State Department spokesman, said he was not aware whether there was a written agreement. He declined to characterize the diplomatic discussions the U.S. had with China beyond what the U.S. has already said on the case.
On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, assured Chen Guangcheng that his nephew's case would remain a "primary focus" for him and fellow lawmakers.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.