HONG KONG -- Chinese prosecutors on Wednesday ordered two relatives of a prominent human rights advocate who lives in exile in the United States to face questioning over allegations that they harbored a criminal, in what one family member considered to be retaliation against the activist's stepped-up criticism of the government.
Chen Guangcheng, 41, won international fame in 2012 by escaping from house arrest after being held for a year and a half in Dongshigu, in Shandong province in eastern China. Although blind, he evaded rings of guards and surveillance cameras and clambered over walls to reach supporters.
After his escape, Mr. Chen took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He left after the Chinese government agreed to let him study at a university and to investigate his complaints that officials and their hired guards had brutally abused him and his family. Worried about reprisals, however, Mr. Chen changed his mind and asked to go to the U.S.; he is now studying in New York, accompanied by his wife and two children.
While Mr. Chen is safe abroad, he has said that Chinese officials and thugs have subjected his relatives in Shandong to retaliation and harassment, including recently throwing rocks and dead poultry at one brother's home.
His nephew Chen Kegui was sentenced to three years and three months in jail in November for assaulting and injuring one of the officials who stormed into his home in April searching for the escaped activist. Now, a year later, Chen Kegui's mother and an uncle face more interrogation over the episode.
The mother, Ren Zongju, and the uncle, Chen Guangjun -- a brother of Chen Guangcheng -- were told by prosecutors in Yinan County, which includes Dongshigu, to answer questions about whether they "harbored a criminal" by helping Chen Kegui before his capture.
"I think that this is really about Guangcheng," said Ms. Ren's husband, Chen Guangfu. "I've heard that he spoke at the U.S. Congress and leveled accusations against officials. In my view, that infuriated them."
On April 9, Chen Guangcheng testified before a House subcommittee. He said his relatives in China faced persecution, and he called on lawmakers to obtain and disclose details of the deal that the U.S. and Chinese governments reached about his treatment.
Ms. Ren said prosecutors questioned her for more than an hour, focusing on 1,000 renminbi in cash ($162), that she handed to her son before he left home. The family says that he was not trying to evade the police and that he was acting in self-defense.
"They were interested only in what suited them," Ms. Ren said. "I told them I'd done nothing wrong. I noticed that they didn't take any notes when I described how I was beaten by the guards."
The uncle, Chen Guangjun, received a call to attend a similar session, but he said that by the time he arrived at the police station, the officials had left for the day, and that he would go back today. Both he and Ms. Ren were questioned by the police about the case last year and were released.
Ms. Ren and her husband said the prosecutors' latest step made it likely that she would soon face trial. But Ding Xikui, a Beijing lawyer who represents their jailed son, said being called in for questioning did not amount to a decision to prosecute.