By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng has demanded the central Chinese government punish officials he blames for false imprisonment and years of persecution, saying on Tuesday that relatives remain under threat despite the international uproar over him.
Chen, who wants to travel to the United States after saying he does not feel secure in China, said he remains committed to continuing the "rights defence" cause that brought him years of jail and house arrest and now international fame as a symbol of resistance to China's shackles on dissent.
"I think that at least (continuing) rights defence would be very natural," Chen said of his future in a telephone interview with Reuters from his hospital room in Beijing.
"Like when someone hits you, don't you flinch? I think that defending our rights is also a basic natural response," he added.
Chen's extensive comments on his plans and his demands swung between combativeness and frustration, underscoring the uncertainties that shadow him and his family, despite the United States turning his case into a top-level issue with China.
Chen plans to study in the United States under a deal struck between Beijing and Washington. President Barack Obama's administration had feared a standoff over Chen's fate could sour ties with China and kindle criticism of Obama's policies.
But even once abroad, Chen said he will keep demanding that Beijing investigate officials in eastern Shandong province whom he accused of engineering his jailing on false charges and 19 months of extra-judicial house arrest and abuse.
"I think that no matter what I will continue demanding that the central government carries out a thorough investigation of Shandong," said Chen, recounting demands that he said he had made to a central official who visited him in hospital.
"I raised very specific demands about a series of steps - that Shandong has to be thoroughly investigated, that no matter who the official, no matter how high the official, no matter how many people are implicated, they must all be dealt with strictly according to the law," said Chen.
Chen said the central government official, whom he did not name, had promised to take up his accusations.
"He said that as long as the facts are there, it will be dealt with according to the national law and will be investigated and dealt with openly," Chen said of the official he spoke to on Monday. "That's the promise, but for now it's just a promise. There hasn't been any concrete action yet."
HOPES AND FRUSTRATIONS
Chen, 40, took shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for six days after escaping from his home village in Shandong. He is now receiving medical treatment for an intestinal problem, a broken foot and other ailments accumulated during 19 months under house arrest and his audacious escape.
After leaving the embassy on Wednesday under a deal that foresaw him staying in China, Chen changed his mind and said he wanted to spend time in the United States to recuperate from the years of imprisonment and harassment that made him one of his country's most recognized representatives of the "rights defence" movement campaigning for expanded civic freedoms.
China's Foreign Ministry has said Chen can apply to study abroad. But it remains unclear how soon Beijing could let him travel to the United States, where New York University has offered him a fellowship.
Chen said family members in Shandong remained under official pressure or custody, and he had been stopped from meeting friends and U.S. diplomats despite official promises to protect him and his family and to respect his freedoms.
Chen quoted the Chinese government official who had visited him as saying now was "too sensitive" for him to meet friends.
"I don't know the reason, but anyway the embassy official told me that he wasn't allowed in," Chen said, recalling what he said was a conversation with a U.S. diplomat on Monday.
On Monday, a spokesman for the State Department, Mark Toner, said American diplomats had been in regular phone contact with Chen over the past couple of days.
"I know we have not seen him in person," Toner told a briefing in Washington D.C. "I don't know if we've made any attempt to see him in person."
Chen said he believed a nephew in Shandong, Chen Kegui, was in police detention facing reprisals in the wake of Chen's escape. Chen said his older brother, Chen Guangfu, was out of detention but had "received heavy threats".
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, came to national fame for campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens, and exposing a campaign of forced abortions in Linyi, Shandong, where officials were under pressure to meet family planning goals.
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 remained under stifling house arrest. Officials had turned his home into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plain clothes.
The village of Dongshigu, Linyi, where Chen's mother and other relatives remain, was under lockdown on Friday. Reuters journalists who tried to visit were turned away by guards.
Chen said the officials he had asked the central government to investigate included Liu Jie, head of the public security bureau in Linyi, and Li Qun, the former Communist Party boss of Linyi who now runs the port city of Qingdao, also in Shandong.
"My lawyer has a lot of evidence from back then, so I hope he'll be able to take part in the central government's investigation," Chen said of his accusations of unjust jailing and abuse by Shandong officials.
"You can't let them escape from legal punishment because it was led by a party secretary and done by officials," he said.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Mark Bendeich)