Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, one of China's best-known rights activists, has made a daring escape from house arrest and recorded a detailing the abuses he and his family have suffered.
Chen, 40, fled his closely guarded home in the eastern province of Shandong on Sunday, escaping from under the noses of dozens of plain-clothes security officers with the help of his supporters.
In an audacious video address to China's Premier Wen Jiabao posted online on Friday, he said he had suffered repeated beatings, and expressed serious concerns for his wife and young son, still being held at the family's home.
Visibly emotional, Chen, who has been blind since childhood, described how on one occasion dozens of men had barged into his house, pushed his wife to the ground and punched and kicked her for several hours.
"Even though I am now free, I am still concerned because my family -- my mother, my wife, my child are still in their hands," he said, calling on Wen to punish several named officials he said had made his family's life a misery.
Chen's exact location was not unknown. There are rumours he may have sought refuge at the US embassy, which would be a major embarrassment for China ahead of a once-a-decade leadership handover later this year.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused comment on the whereabouts of Chen, who won worldwide acclaim for his campaigning on forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China's "one-child" policy.
"We have always had concerns about this case," she said.
But Bob Fu, a US-based activist in close contact with Chen, told AFP the lawyer was "now in a 100 percent safe location in Beijing".
Chen's escape came ahead of a visit to China next week by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly called for him to be released from house arrest.
If he has been granted refuge by the United States, he would be the first Chinese dissident known to have done so since Fang Lizhi, a key figure in the pro-democracy movement.
Fang was granted refuge at the embassy after publicly supporting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and forced into exile in 1990. He died in the United States earlier this month at the age of 76.
Wang Lijun, former right-hand man of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, reportedly went to the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu in February to seek US asylum, but was turned down.
Chen had been under house arrest along with his wife and young son since he was released from a four-year jail sentence in September 2010 and guarded round the clock.
He gained fame for helping people sue officials over a wide variety of injustices, with corrupt officials in government a particular target.
After pursuing law at a school for the blind during his youth, he armed himself with legal knowledge and began giving free legal advice to villagers, although he has no formal legal qualifications.
He was jailed in 2006 after accusing family-planning officials in Shandong of forcing at least 7,000 women to be sterilised or undergo late-term abortions.
That same year, he was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people for his courage in exposing the abuses.
Reporters and activists who have tried to visit Chen during his house arrest have been unable to access his home, and some have even been roughed up by the guards posted at every entrance to his village.
Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit the lawyer last December, but was stopped by a group of men who pushed and punched him.
Chen's treatment is particularly draconian even in China, where dissidents and lawyers are frequently held under some form of house arrest if they upset authorities or are believed to be a threat.
Fu said news of Chen's audacious escape broke early Friday, when government officials went to Dongshigu village to search his house and that of his elder brother Chen Guangfu.
Fu said the lawyer's wife, mother and child were unable to leave the house, which had been surrounded by police, while his elder brother had been arrested.
Chen Guangcheng's nephew, who slashed a man with a knife when unidentified men showed up at his house in the village, has surrendered to police, activists said. The local government said in a statement that Chen Kegui would be dealt with "according to the law".
He Peirong, one of Chen's supporters who helped transport him to a safe location, was arrested at her home in the eastern city of Nanjing on Friday, Fu added.
Fu -- a former Tiananmen Square democracy activist who fled China in 1996 -- said Chen had previously expressed reluctance to leave the country.
"He said he wants to fight to the end inside China for his citizen's rights. He wants to lead a normal life as a Chinese citizen," Fu said.