Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese legal activist and a prominent rights advocate, has mysteriously escaped from home detention and remains in an undisclosed location, reports say.
Chen, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions, had been restricted to his village home in Linyi in eastern Shandong province since September 2010 when he was released from jail.
In a video posted on YouTube, Chen confirmed he had escaped, and asked Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, to order an investigation in the maltreatment of him and his family by local officials.
"It was not at all easy, but I have escaped," he said in the video.
"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."
Chen did not say where he was nor what his plans were.
"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," he said.
'Stop the beatings'
In the video Chen released on Youtube, "he's asking the authorities to stop the beatings of himself and his family", Stephen Vines, a Hong Kong-based political commentator, said on Friday.
"But on many occasions he's said he doesn't want to leave China, and I think it's unlikely he'll leave China without his wife and child who he's not with now.
"The guards have beaten his [Chen's] old mother this year. They broke some of his wife's bones which have yet to heal."
- he Peiron, activist
"Some say he escaped as early as last Sunday; others say it was as late as today."
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid, said in a statement that Chen was in Beijing and "100 per cent safe".
"There is speculation that Chen is in the US embassy in Beijing," ChinaAid said.
The US embassy refused to confirm or deny the Chen's location, and China's foreign ministry said it had no immediate comment.
Fu earlier said in a telephone interview that Chen's wife, daughter and mother were still at the family's village home, which was surrounded by authorities after they discovered Chen had disappeared.
"The entire village and government leaders were stunned by the developments when Chen Guangcheng was not found. So they are surrounding his home," he said.
He Peirong, another Chinese activist, told Reuters news agency that Chen had talked with her and expressed worry 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," He said.
"The guards have beaten his old mother this year. They broke some of his wife's bones which have yet to heal."
Officials in Shandong did not comment immediately on Chen's escape.
The news was widely discussed on China's popular Twitter-like service Weibo, with users referring to him as "the blind man" to avoid censorship of his name, reflecting his status as a Chinese cult hero.
Phelim Kine, Senior Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, expressed concern about Chen's health.
"If Chen has successfully escaped, it comes not a moment too soon as there have been reports that Chen has been in extremely poor health due to severe multiple beatings by his captors," Kine said.
Chen angered Shandong officials in 2005 by exposing 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".
Chen and his wife endured a "brutal four-hour beating" by local authorities last July, ChinaAid has said.
Last year, dozens of supporters were blocked from visiting Chen. Many of them were beaten by men in plain clothes.
His confinement and relentless surveillance with his family prompted protests by Chinese sympathisers and criticism from foreign governments and activist groups.
Chen's reported escape and the outry it has caused could add to the headaches of China's ruling Communist Party, which is striving to ensure stability and authority ahead of a leadership transition later this year.
"He's a very high-profile dissident. Escapes like this are very rare. The last one that we know of happened in 2009," Vines, the political commentator, said.
He said whoever might be supporting Chen would probably not discuss the escape in order to protect Chen's safety.
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