Chen, his wife and his mother smile and wave goodbye to an unseen guest outside their house.

Story highlights

Condition of blind Chinese legal activist, held under house arrest, has improved, friend says

Chen Guangcheng's supporters maintain authorities used trumped-up charges to silence him

Local officials in Chen's village said they could not discuss any aspect of his case

State media ignores Chen's story but his plight has spread online and outraged many Chinese

Beijing CNN  — 

The condition of a prominent blind Chinese legal activist, whose nearly 15-months of house arrest and alleged mistreatment by local authorities have drawn international criticism, has slightly improved, a family friend told CNN Wednesday.

“Chen Guangcheng’s health has gotten better after his guards allowed our medicine to be delivered and it proved effective in treating his chronic problem of having blood in the stool,” said friend and activist He Peirong, from the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing.

Chen, who turned 40 last month, has been confined to his home along with his wife, mother and daughter since he was released from prison in September 2010. A local court had sentenced him to four years in prison for damaging property and disrupting traffic in a protest.

His supporters maintain authorities used trumped-up charges to silence Chen, a self-taught lawyer who rose to fame in the late 1990s thanks to his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices by China’s family-planning officials.

The apparent positive development regarding Chen’s health came after activists in China and around the world intensified their campaigns for his freedom in the past few months. Amid rumors of his death, four photos recently surfaced online, showing Chen, his wife and mother smiling and waving goodbye to an unseen guest outside their house.

He Peirong confirmed the photos’ authenticity and said they were taken in late October. She also identified a stranger in one of the photos as a guard who had moved into Chen’s house to keep a closer eye on the family.

“They looked relaxed because it was right after the authorities allowed his daughter to attend school, promised heating in the house this winter and let his elderly mother go out to buy food accompanied by guards,” she explained, saying that growing domestic and international pressure had eventually led officials to making some gesture on Chen’s case.

Dozens of plainclothes guards with walkie-talkies, however, continue to watch Chen’s house around the clock in the small village of Dongshigu in eastern Shandong Province, according to He Peirong. She added that most family members, including Chen’s son who has been living with relatives, are still barred from visiting the house.

CNN contacted local officials in Linyi City, whose jurisdiction includes Chen’s village, for comment on the allegations and Chen’s condition. They said they could not discuss any aspect of the case.

“Chen is a free man under China’s own laws,” He Peirong said. “At the very least, he should be allowed to live his life without any hindrance.”

Other supporters echoed her sentiment Tuesday in Washington as they testified in front of a U.S. Congressional panel.

“The report that Chen is alive and in improved condition should not be a reason to relax efforts on his behalf,” said Reggie Littlejohn, whose organization Women’s Rights Without Frontiers has been leading a global campaign for Chen’s release. “To the contrary, these efforts are having an impact and should intensify until Chen is free.”

Early this year, in a video smuggled out of the country by a U.S.-based human rights group, Chen described his dire conditions of being a prisoner in his own home.

“Those people stand at the four corners of my house, spy on my family and monitor what we do,” he said. “They installed floodlights and surveillance cameras around my house.”

Chen, sporting sunglasses and a black jacket in the video, also said that officials had cut off his phone lines and threatened anyone in the community who attempted to help him. When CNN tried to visit him in February, guards manning checkpoints in the village hurled rocks at us and forced us to retreat.

Chen and his wife were beaten after the video was made public and again when guards found out their attempt to communicate with the outside world, He Peirong and other activists said.

CNN could not independently verify the claims. Local officials declined to comment.

Although state media has largely ignored Chen’s story, his plight has spread online and outraged an increasing number of Chinese netizens.

Many joined a “Chen Sunglasses” movement by switching their profile pictures on social media sites to photos of people wearing sunglasses to show their solidarity with Chen.

Other sympathizers, as recently as last weekend, have tried to visit Chen, despite the threat of physical danger. Activists say all attempted visitors have been turned back, often violently, by plainclothes police and local thugs.

“Before we reached village, we were intercepted by about 100 people,” a blogger named Liu Li told CNN last month after a failed group effort. “I was surrounded by a dozen of them and they beat me up until I passed out.”

When asked about these claims, local officials again declined to comment.

He Peirong, Chen’s family friend, says while she is heartened by the rising awareness and activism on Chen’s case, she doesn’t expect the authorities to soften their approach to his supporters.

“They won’t relent,” she said. “Because they fear even a single step in that direction may open the floodgates for activists and threaten their rule.”