Leading human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng escapes house arrest and is in a hidden location, but Channel 4 News hears his nephew is on the run after a violent clash with authorities.
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Chen had been restricted to his home village of Linyi in eastern Shandong province since September 2010, after spending five years in jail.
He reported his escape from house arrest on Friday by posting a video online in which he also asked Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate maltreatment against him and his family.
Hours after his escape, state media reported that his nephew, Chen Kegui, is the subject of a manhunt after a violent clash with authorities. Chen's supporters say that non-uniformed supporters broke into his house in the middle of the night and he was defending himself, Channel 4 News was told.
"Within hours, it appears that these security agents who are responsible for Chen's unlawful detention are targeting other members of his family as retaliation for his escape," Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch told Channel 4 News.
Campaigners and foreign governments had criticised the surveillance of Chen's family, and his confinement, and his widely reported escape is likely to be a cause of concern for the ruling Communist Party, which is gearing up for a change of leadership later this year.
In December, Hollywood actor and Batman star, Christian Bale, said he was roughed up by security guards while trying to visit Chen, when he was in China to promote a film.
A prominent human rights advocate, Chen campaigned in 2005 against what he said was a programme of forced abortions as part of China's one-child policy. He was formally released in September 2010 after four years in jail on a charge of "blocking traffic".
In his video, Chen said: "It was not at all easy, but I have escaped. Everything that was said on the internet about the violence directed against me by Linyi, I'm here to say that it was all true."
He is really worried about his wife, child and mother now he has escaped. He is scared the guards will take revenge now he has escaped. The guards have beaten his old mother this year. They broke some of his wife's bones which have yet to heal. He Peirong, Chinese activist
He added: "I want Premier Wen to open a probe into this corrupt behaviour. The money paid by the people in taxes should not be wasted by corrupt local officials to hurt us."
Chen's escape from a tightly controlled security shows a meticulously planned operation by his supporters, said Mr Kine. "Despite the official impediments and censorship, he has developed an unprecedented public following in China over the years," he told Channel 4 News, adding that two individuals have been obstructed and assaulted by authorities for trying to visit Mr Chen.
Another Chinese activist, He Peirong, said she had spoken with Chen who was not in good health. "His spirits are okay, but he is passing blood and is very weak," she said. "His hands won't stop shaking."
She added that Chen is in an undisclosed location, but is worried about his family: "He is really worried about his wife, child and mother now he has escaped. He is scared the guards will take revenge now he has escaped. The guards have beaten his old mother this year. They broke some of his wife's bones which have yet to heal."
Women's Rights Without Frontiers reported that Chen's brother was seized by a gang of thugs. The group's president, Reggie Littlejohn, called on Hilary Clinton to raise Mr Chen's case during her visit to Beijing on May 3: "Indeed, we call upon the entire international diplomatic community to make urgent, official interventions on behalf of Chen with the Chinese government. We call upon NGOs and concerned citizens the world over strongly to support this great hero during his hour of need," she added.
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid, said that Chen is in Beijing and "100 per cent safe".
"There is speculation that Chen is in the US Embassy in Beijing," he added. The US Embassy and China's Foreign Ministry both said they had no immediate comment.
The fate of the blind activist has become a test of wills between the Communist Party, who have been trying to limit controversy surrounding the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, and activists who have rallied around Chen's cause and that of artist Ai Weiwei.
Over the past 19 months, he and his family have been confined to their house and guarded by a heavy security presence. Chen, his wife and his elderly mother have been severely beaten at various times, and his daughter was prevented from attended school for a period.
The news of his escape was widely discussed on China's Twitter-like service Weibo, with users referring to him as "the blind man" to avoid censorship of his name.
"He has escaped from the clutches of the devil," wrote one user, while another said: "Never has the fate of single blind man moved the hearts of an entire nation."
10 April 2012