When authorities began forcing women from the village of Linyi to have abortions and sterilisations Chen Guangcheng decided to speak up.

The blind, self-trained lawyer helped the distraught villagers with a lawsuit against local authorities, those adherence to China's strict birth quotas had reportedly affected thousands of women.

Since then he's been physically abused, placed under house arrest and jailed.

Chen Guangcheng (36) was last year awarded the Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize and has been named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

He is now serving four years and three months in a Chinese prison for "damaging public property and gathering people to block traffic".

We believe the charges against Chen Guangcheng are politically motivated and he must be released immediately.

Lawyers assaulted

Before Chen Guangcheng's August 2006 trial – which reportedly lasted only two hours – he, his family and his lawyers were beaten, harassed and intimidated.

On the day of the hearing his wife, Yuan Weijing, some of his relatives and even his lawyers were not allowed into the court. Police also reportedly blocked a large area around the court to stop his supporters getting close.

Chen Guangcheng appealed the guilty verdict. But because he's blind he needed help from his wife or a lawyer to prepare; authorities only allowed him one 30 minute visit per month making that difficult.

At an appeal hearing several key defence witnesses – who claim they were tortured into providing testimony against Chen Guangcheng – were detained and prevented from attending by police or men linked to the police.

The court upheld the original verdict.

Attacked by inmates

In prison Chen Guangcheng was severely kicked and beaten by fellow inmates on the orders of the guards after he refused to have his head shaven – the symbol of a criminal in China. He was planning a hunger strike to protest his treatment.

Requests that Chen Guangcheng, who is a self-taught lawyer, be allowed to serve his sentence away from prison because of his blindness have not been answered.

Last year Yuan Weijing, who is under tight surveillance, tried to fly to the Philippines to collect her husband's Magsaysay Award, but was stopped at Beijing airport and escorted back home.

Worldwide support

In a letter to Amnesty International Yuan Weijing thanked activists for their support. She said during a visit last May she had told her husband about cards that had been sent from all over the world.

"He said he had not received a single letter in prison. He asked me to tell you he is very happy and grateful that he has so many friends who are concerned about him and support him,' she wrote.

Under surveillance

Chen Guangcheng's case is an example of the pattern of imprisoning Chinese lawyers and activists after unfair trails. This trend continues despite China's promises to improve human rights in the lead up to the Olympics.

We are concerned about the increased use of forms of house arrest and residential surveillance against people who highlight politically 'sensitive' issues.

Under law police can use residential surveillance against criminal suspects. But in practice activists rarely see any official notice explaining their detention and the surveillance often exceeds the legal six-month-maximum.