BEIJING (Reuters) - Blind Chinese rights defender Chen Guangcheng has never been one to give up without a fight.
Robbed of his sight as a child, the rural-born Chen taught himself law and used his knowledge with gusto, drawing international attention in 2005 after accusing officials of enforcing late-term abortions and sterilisations.
His campaign appeared to pay off initially, after the government sacked and detained officials in his home province of Shandong for forcing pregnant women to undergo abortions or sterilising couples with more than two children.
Typically combative, Chen said the move really did not amount to much.
"It falls far short of the number of officials who should be punished," Chen told Reuters at the time, dismissing the government crackdown.
Now, aged 40, he finds himself at the centre of what could become a damaging diplomatic spat between China and the United States, adding to tensions between the two countries already at loggerheads over everything from trade to the South China Sea.
He is believed to be under U.S. protection in Beijing after fleeing 19 months of house arrest.
Chen educated himself in law to press his rights as a disabled citizen. He gained a nationwide profile when he broadened his demands to include farmers' rights.
In the first years of the new millennium, Chen was among a wave of "rights defenders" who aimed to tame the ruling Communist Party's powers through court cases and publicity. For a few years, Chen and the movement as a whole scored successes.
In an interview with a Reuters reporter around that time, Chen - confident and basking in embryonic fame - said he wanted to set an example of villagers and disabled citizens fighting for their own rights.
But then China's authorities, wary of the rights campaign undermining party control, began their counter-offensive.
In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in jail on charges, vehemently denied by his wife and lawyers, that he whipped up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
He was formally released in 2010 but had been under virtual house arrest since September last year. Chen and his wife endured a "brutal four-hour beating" by local authorities in July, according to the U.S. advocacy group ChinaAid.
Speaking in a video released on YouTube this week after his escape, Chen appealed to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to order a probe into the brutality he says he and his family have endured from thugs who have acted as unofficial guards.
"You must personally inquire into this case, deploy investigators to investigate and reveal the truth regarding who made the order to deploy police and government officials to beat me at my home, injure, and not allow medical treatment," Chen said.
"Who made this order? You must immediately investigate," he added. "They broke into our house, pinned down my wife and smothered her with a blanket, and brutally beat her."
Protests against Chinese police erupted in Chen's home village in early 2006, a week after Premier Wen visited the province to promote "harmony" in the countryside.
"The villagers are angry, because they suffer abuse from these people, as well," Chen told Reuters then. "It's bad enough how they're treating me, but it's too much when my neighbour also suffers just because of me."
In 2007, Chen won the Asian equivalent of the Nobel prize, awarded by the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, which cited his "irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law".
Despite government censorship, Chen has emerged as a hero for many in China, reflecting widespread discontent at what is viewed as the unaccountability of officials and abuses of power which go unpunished.
In October, the Global Times, one of China's most widely read papers, chided authorities over the handling of Chen's secretive detention.
"Now the case of Chen Guangcheng has become exaggerated into a mirror of China's human rights, and it seems that we need more experienced authorities to lance this boil," said the tabloid, published by party mouthpiece the People's Daily.
(Additional reporting by Sisi Tang in HONG KONG, Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jonathan Thatcher)
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