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6/17/11 China (NewYorkTimes) — Details are emerging about the apparently brutal detention of one of China’s most important legal activists, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng.

Mr. Chen was released from jail last year after serving a 51-month sentence for disturbing public order and destroying public property — charges linked to his uncovering of forced sterilizations and abortions in the eastern Chinese city of Linyi.

But since his release, he has been under “ruanjin,” or “soft detention,” a kind of house arrest increasingly being used by the authorities to silence people who have not violated the law. Authorities once celebrated the 39-year-old self-taught lawyer as a symbol of the country’s efforts to build a legal system, but turned against him when he used it to protest government abuse. Earlier this year, a video was smuggled out showing his detention. Reporters who tried to visit him were shooed off by undercover police officers who had encircled his home.

Now, ChinaAid, a human rights group based in the United States, says it has evidence of stepped-up harassment, including beatings and confiscation of personal property. The group, which previously released Mr. Chen’s video, says it has obtained a letter from Mr. Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, that details the couple’s most recent travails.

Contents of the letter were confirmed by a friend of the family, He Peirong. Ms. He, who describes herself as a Nanjing-based Internet activist, said she visited Mr. Chen’s hometown in late May and spoke with people related to his family.

According to Ms. He’s account and the undated letter, Ms. Yuan said that in February and March of this year, Communist Party officials from Shuanghou, a suburb of Linyi, stormed the couple’s homes. Ms. Yuan said she was bundled into a blanket and repeatedly kicked so hard that she still cannot stand straight. She says she saw her husband being tortured by the men, who twisted his arms and neck until he passed out. The couple was denied medical aid, she said, except for one intravenous drip from a village doctor. They had to stay in bed because of their injuries, she said.

The men came back repeatedly, according to Ms. Yuan’s letter, and confiscated legal documents related to Mr. Chen’s case as well as a computer, video camera, audio recorder, flashlight and television antenna. Metal sheets were fixed over the windows and the power was cut off. Telephone lines had already been cut.

Still later, she said, men took away all their books, pictures of their daughter and calendars off the wall. The authorities installed video cameras to monitor the couple.

The house arrest extends to the couple’s 5-year-old daughter, Ms. Yuan wrote, and Mr. Chen’s mother.

Local authorities did not answer phone calls seeking comment, but the use of house arrest appears to have increased in recent years as authorities attempt to silence critics. Several pastors of the Beijing-based Shouwang Church, for example, have been under house arrest for months since trying to lead outdoor services after their meeting place was closed. The church refuses to place itself under government control.

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