BEIJING - Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and a family lawyer have accused local officials of detaining two of his relatives and hounding and harassing others in revenge for his recent escape from house arrest and for sparking an international furore.
Chen, whose escape last month caused embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic crisis in U.S.-Sino relations, said a sister-in-law and nephew had both been detained, though the lawyer added that Chen's sister-in-law had since been released.
Chen has spoken previously of his fears for reprisals against his family, but his remarks to Reuters on Thursday, corroborated by the lawyer, are the first time he has relayed details of what he says is a crazed campaign of reprisals.
"Now they're going crazy with reprisals," Chen said in a telephone interview from a Beijing hospital where he is being treated for injuries suffered during his escape.
"In fact, they've already started taking revenge."
Chen's story has overshadowed Sino-U.S. diplomacy since he foiled guards and security cameras around his home in Shandong province, in rural east China, and was taken by supporters to Beijing where he sheltered in the U.S. embassy for six days.
Chen is also being treated in hospital for an intestinal ailment left untreated while under house arrest for 19 months. He now plans to study in the United States, where he has been offered fellowships by New York University and the University of Washington, under a deal between Beijing and Washington.
Chen said relatives back in Shandong appeared to be bearing the brunt of officials' anger over his audacious escape and the international uproar it sparked.
The reprisals were, he said, weighing heavily on his mind though for now he was unlikely to delay his plans to go to the United States. "It shouldn't. We'll see," he said.
Chen, who recently spoke by phone to his elderly mother but otherwise had patchy communications with his relatives, said his biggest worry was the fate of his nephew Chen Kegui.
He said police had detained Chen Kegui after the nephew was accused of brandishing a kitchen cleaver at guards who had stormed into the home of the blind dissident's brothers after his bold escape prompted a panicked search by officials.
"It seems the Yinan public security has already said he's in their hands," said Chen, adding that a sister-in-law had also been detained.
It was not completely clear if he was referring to Chen Kegui's mother, who the lawyer said had been detained and released, or another sister-in-law. The dissident has four sisters-in-law.
"My family is very worried," Chen said.
Liu Weiguo, a lawyer representing Chen Kegui, told Reuters that Chen Kegui was being held at a detention centre in Yinan county in Shandong, but he had no idea what charges he faced.
Yinan County Detention Centre was unavailable for comment. When asked about Chen Kegui, a woman surnamed Gao at the Yinan public security bureau said she was "unclear" of the situation.
Chen Kegui's mother "obtained a guarantee pending a trial", similar to bail, after her six days of detention, while his father, Chen Guangfu, was barred from leaving the village and his mobile phone confiscated, the lawyer Liu said.
Police told Chen's relatives that they were searching for Chen Kegui's wife, demanding that she sign some paperwork, although Chen said the wife might also be in police detention.
"His wife shouldn't be under criminal detention, but that doesn't mean she hasn't been detained," said Chen. "So now this Chen Kegui case is making me very worried."
Chen said it was difficult to keep in touch with family members in Shandong and clarify what was going on because many of their phones were seized by officials. Chen's wife and two young children are with him in Beijing, waiting to join him in his bid to travel to the United States.
"The family's phones have all been seized," he said. "Just like before when they raided my home, seizing stuff without any procedures or warrant."