By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, May 18 (Reuters) - The nephew of blind activist Chen Guangcheng has been denied his family's choice of lawyers to defend a charge of "intentional homicide" in what one said was an attempt to manipulate a case that has focused world attention on China's human rights.
The decision by police in Yinan in northeastern Shandong province is the latest in a series of moves to deny Chen Kegui legal representation and underscores the hardline stance taken against the family of Chen Guangcheng.
Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest last month and subsequent refuge in the U.S. embassy caused huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic crisis in Sino-U.S. relations.
The ruling Communist Party has always been wary of lawyers, who officials suspect could challenge its power through their advocacy of the rule of law. Authorities have frequently sought to prevent lawyers from taking up politically sensitive cases by suspending their licences or threatening them.
Chen Kegui, in his early 30s, could face the death penalty if found guilty of using knives to fend off local officials who burst into his home on April 27, the day after they discovered his blind uncle had escaped house arrest. His lawyers said he did not kill anyone.
Police told Ding Xikui, one of his team of lawyers, that Chen Kegui had been appointed two lawyers from the Yinan government-run legal aid centre, Ding told Reuters by telephone from Shandong.
"They told us: 'According to Chinese law, a criminal suspect can only be commissioned two lawyers. Two have been assigned to him, so both of you can't be his lawyers'," said Ding, who represented jailed Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo at his 2009 subversion trial.
"TRUMPED UP" HOMICIDE CHARGE
"This shows that the authorities in Linyi and the forces behind it are attempting to manipulate the case behind the scenes," said Jiang Tianyong, one of the members of the legal team of more than a dozen lawyers who have volunteered to defend Chen Kegui.
"Chen Kegui will not be able to get a real defence, and the outside world will not be able to know the progress of the case," he said. "In this way, the fate of Chen Kegui will entirely be up to the authorities."
Some legal experts say the charge has been trumped up against him, while others say a death is not necessary for the charge of homicide to hold.
"If I have intent to cause harm and take steps toward that end, I can be convicted of that offence under Chinese law whether I successfully carry out the harmful act or not," Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher in Hong Kong, said in emailed comments.
Police in Yinan were not immediately available for comment. An official who answered the phone at the Yinan Legal Aid Centre said he "does not know about this matter" when asked to confirm that Chen Kegui had been assigned lawyers from the centre.
In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have thwarted plans by other lawyers to meet Chen Kegui and warned others not to get involved, according to lawyer Liu Weiguo.
No family member or lawyer has been allowed to see Chen Kegui, who is held in a detention centre in Yinan, making the lawyers feel "powerless", lawyer Si Weijiang said.
Chen Guangcheng said on Friday that authorities in Shandong had threatened his elder brother, Chen Guangfu, saying that they would increase Chen Kegui's sentence if Chen Guangfu accepts media interviews.
In a videotaped interview with Hong Kong online magazine iSun Affairs uploaded on Wednesday, Chen Guangfu described his torture by plainclothes men after Chen Guangcheng's escape.
The United States has appealed to China to let Chen Guangcheng travel to the United States to study. He said he applied for a passport on Wednesday and that he should get a reply within 15 days.
Chen Guangcheng earlier told Reuters that his nephew was the victim of vengeance by officials incensed at the blind dissident's escape.
"They're simply thugs," said Liu Weiguo, when asked why he thought the authorities had denied Chen Kegui access to the two lawyers. "They're doing this to cover up the truth about the persecution of Chen Guangcheng." (Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie)