Chen was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for organizing a mob to block traffic and damaging property. When he was released, he was immediately imprisoned in his home.
The Chinese authorities, when asked, insisted he was a free man.
“I was in a small prison, and now I am in a larger prison,” said Chen in a video that was smuggled out, an act that brought such a severe beating that the dissident was left unconscious, human rights groups said.
As the house arrest continued, dozens of people attempted to visit Chen, most famously the actor Christian Bale, who in December scuffled with Chen’s guards in an episode that was captured by a CNN film crew.
For several months before his escape on April 22, Chen feigned illness to lull his guards into complacency. On the night he fled his home, Chen scaled the wall that had been built to keep him in, badly injuring his foot as he fell to the ground. He struggled on to a rendezvous point.
Friends drove him to Beijing and sheltered him while they contacted the U.S. Embassy. He was picked up by U.S. officials, who eluded a Chinese tail and whisked him into the American compound. He stayed there for six days before leaving Wednesday, after many hours of tense talks between U.S. and Chinese authorities about his future.
In an interview Thursday from his hospital bed, where Chen was admitted for treatment of a cracked bone, he said he wanted to continue “to promote social progress and judicial system improvement in China.”
“Society must become more and more fair in the future,” Chen said. “It’s just a matter of time. It depends on how many people make efforts and how big the efforts we make are.”
Cohen said Chen’s fluctuating statements in recent days — expressing a desire to remain in China, then asking for asylum, and then requesting only a temporary stay in the United States — reflect his conflicting priorities and the avalanche of advice he has received.
Cohen said he believes Chen is torn between the legal work he wants to continue and the safety of his family, which fellow activists say has been threatened with retaliation by Chinese authorities.
“He is uncertain about what he wants,” Cohen said. “How could he not be conflicted? On the one hand, he has his work. On the other, he has a wonderful wife and two lovely children.”
Staff writer Keith Richburg in Beijing contributed to this report.