IMAGE: Chen Guangcheng
In this undated file photo released by his supporters in August, blind activist Chen Guangcheng is seen in a village in China before his sentencing Aug. 24.
updated 10/31/2006 10:30:41 PM ET 2006-11-01T03:30:41

The guilty verdict of a blind Chinese activist who was sentenced to more than four years in prison after he documented villagers' claims of forced abortions has been overturned because evidence against him did not hold up, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Chen Guangcheng was convicted in August and sentenced to four years and three months in prison for damaging property and "organizing a mob to disturb traffic" after a trial in the eastern province of Shandong.

His case has drawn international attention by human rights activists as an example of what they say is official retaliation and unjust imprisonment of dissidents based on phony charges.

The Linyi City Intermediate Court, where Chen filed his appeal, overturned the sentence on Monday and sent it back to the lower court in Yinan County, Li Jingsong, one of Chen's lawyers, said in a telephone interview. Chen may have to wait for up to six weeks for a new trial, he said.

"The court said it was because the process of the first trial was unfair and facts and evidence ... were not tenable and did not hold water," Li said.

"This is definitely good news," he added.

The official Xinhua News Agency has reported that Chen instigated an attack on government offices in Yinan County because he was upset with workers sent to carry out poverty-relief programs.

Chen was accused of getting several members of his family to help damage police cars, Xinhua said. It said his relatives gathered a bigger group that smashed windows at a police station, overturned cars and beat police officers.

Chen's supporters said officials fabricated the charges against him in retaliation after he documented complaints that officials who were trying to enforce China's birth-control regulations forced villagers to have late-term abortions and sterilizations.

While such practices are illegal, local officials often resort to drastic measures for fear of being punished for exceeding birth quotas.

Chen's defense team boycotted the trial after three members were detained by police on theft charges the night before the trial.

Li Fangping, another lawyer on the team of volunteer attorneys who represent Chen, said then that Chen argued that his trial should not have gone forward because his legal team didn't attend.

The U.S. State Department has criticized the detention of Chen's lawyers, saying it raised questions about China's commitment to the rule of law.

Last month, more than 50 leading scholars and rights campaigners from the United States, Europe and Australia mentioned Chen in a letter to President Hu Jintao.

The cases of Chen, along with lawyer Gao Zhisheng, AIDS activist Hu Jia and New York Times researcher Zhao Yan were particularly troubling because China appeared to be using "state secrets laws to prevent defendants in politically sensitive cases from exercising their rights to fair and impartial hearings," the letter said.

Chen was blinded by a fever in infancy and taught himself law in order to fight discrimination against himself and handicapped farmers in his home province of Shandong.

Chen and members of his family have said they've been beaten, threatened and confined to their house by thugs regularly in the past year.

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