Online calls by activists to visit a blind lawyer being held under house arrest in China have drawn unusually large support, with some traipsing to his village and being detained, questioned and even beaten.
The appeals, which began appearing last week, have brought renewed attention to Chen Guangcheng, turning him into a new rallying cause one year after he was released from prison but confined to his home surrounded by police and thugs to keep outsiders away.
About 20 people have tried to visit the lawyer in eastern China in the past week, by one activist's count, among them Chinese not previously known to be human rights campaigners.
One of the newcomers is a 45-year-old man surnamed Xu. He was caught by police at a long-distance bus station in Linyi, near Chen's village, last Wednesday. He was detained at a police station and questioned on suspicion of drug trafficking before being driven back to his hometown two hours away.
"I knew it was going to be dangerous, but I didn't think it would be this dangerous," Xu said in a phone interview Sunday. He asked that he not be further identified for fear of government reprisal and said he only wanted to visit Chen to give him some money.
"He is a legal citizen, not a criminal; we should have the right to visit him," Xu said, while noting his own record had now been stained by the drugs charges.
Police in Linyi did not reply to questions sent by fax Sunday.
Authorities have turned Chen's village of Dongshigu into a hostile, no-go zone, trapping the lawyer, his wife and child inside. Activists, foreign diplomats and reporters have been turned back, threatened and had stones thrown at them by men patrolling the village.
Blinded by a fever in infancy and self-taught as a lawyer, Chen became an inspiring figure among rights activists for his dogged pursuit of justice. He documented forced late-term abortions and sterilizations in his rural community, angering authorities. He was eventually imprisoned for four years.
Since his release, he has once beaten unconscious by his captors, and his 6-year-old daughter is believed to be barred from leaving the family home, even to attend school.
The calls to visit Chen began appearing on Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, apparently to capitalize on a weeklong national holiday that ended Friday. Support for the lawyer has come in many forms, with several microblog users using pictures of Chen as their profile images, some making donations to activists trying to visit Chen, and others making the journey.
Newspaper reporter Shi Yu wrote on his blog that he was beaten, robbed and detained for hours after attempting to enter Chen's village last Wednesday. Shi confirmed in a telephone call that he had authored the blog post but declined comment.
In his account, Shi said police ordered his taxi into a courtyard for what they called a routine check. A group of men who did not identify themselves pulled his arms back and his T-shirt over his head so he could not see. They searched him and stole his cash, mobile phone, recording device, a ring and watch, and punched him on his back and head.
After being detained overnight and further questioned by police _ who said villagers had caught him on suspicion of theft _ Shi was sent back to the central city of Zhengzhou, where he lives.
"My visit is only to express to him an ordinary person's respect for a good man," Shi wrote. "This is the ethics of humanity, and is not prohibited by the law in China that I respect and scrupulously abide by."
Activists who have tried to draw attention to Chen's continued house arrest include Liu Shasha and He Peirong, who have both been detained in previous attempts to visit Chen.
Liu was among the activists who had made the appeals on Weibo and was also caught by police in Linyi on Wednesday, friends said. Liu's exact whereabouts were unclear, and her mobile phone numbers were disconnected.
In a phone interview, He said that by her rough tally, around 20 people have tried visiting Chen this past week, although in a few cases it was impossible to verify their identities because they do not use their real names on Weibo. She said it was encouraging to see other individuals take up the cause.
"It was unexpected that there would be so many spontaneous responses to the calls to visit him, especially from so many ordinary people with no previous experience in rights defense work," He said. What the authorities "are doing to Chen Guangcheng has already exceeded what we can tolerate. If they continue to do this, it will soon become a citizens' movement."
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong