Blind lawyer who reported forced abortions goes on trial in China

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The Independent Online

A Chinese lawyer who exposed a violent campaign of forced abortions and sterilisations by family planning officials in his home town is on trial this week after months under house arrest without charge.

Chen Guangcheng, 35, has been detained on-and-off since August after highlighting the plight of women in Linyi, an area with some 10 million residents, and revealing how family planning officials there used violent methods to enforce the "one-child policy".

In a report, he and his supporters said tens of thousands of people with an illegal number of children, and who were ineligible to have more, were coerced into late-term abortions, and people were forced to have sterilisations.

Chen went blind as a child and is a self-taught lawyer, who was not allowed to graduate because of his disability. He listened in to classes, and like many so-called "barefoot lawyers", he uses what legal skills he has to represent his fellow villagers.

The reports from Linyi were shocking - of men arrested while their wives were forced into abortions eight months into their pregnancies. The central government launched an investigation, and a small number of officials were punished. But Chen appears to have fallen foul of local authorities and has been under arrest almost since the report was published. He is being tried by Yinan county court on what look like trumped-up charges - "deliberately destroying public property and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic".

Chen's profile in China is very high, and both domestic and foreign civil rights campaigners have called on Beijing to free him and investigate claims that he was tortured in custody. Time magazine put him on its list of "2006's Top 100 people who shape our world".

His Beijing lawyers - no local lawyer would take on his case - say they have been prevented from gathering evidence or talking to witnesses, some of whom have also been locked up. Members of the legal team have received death threats, and been beaten up and intimidated by thugs as they tried to enter Chen's home village of Dongshigu, where his wife is also detained.

One of the greatest experiments in social engineering ever, China's "one- child policy" was imposed in 1979. It is a mixed bag of measures - people from ethnic minorities are exempt, while farmers who have a girl first are allowed have a second offspring. City dwellers where both partners come from one-child families can have a second child, and some people simply pay the fines.

The government says no one is physically forced not to have children, and calculates that since the policy was introduced, more than 400 million births have been prevented. There is an average birth rate of 1.8 children per couple in China, compared to six in 1979.

But in Linyi, forced abortions and sterilisations were reportedly carried out by officials who needed to keep within quotas so as not to risk incurring black marks on their records.