Chen Guangcheng, a lawyer and rights activist, escaped in April after nearly two years of illegal detention in China. He is studying at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University’s School of Law.

For nearly two years, I was locked in my farmhouse by lawless thugs, unable to seek medical care and scarcely able to even imagine a day when I could feel the sun on my face again. In the month since my wife, children and I arrived in the United States from China, the extraordinary official surveillance and restrictions imposed on my family members who remain in our home village reportedly have started to abate. The county police have even begun to make amends, offering to pay my brother for some of the furniture they broke during the vengeful attack on his family after they discovered my escape.

While some may derive cautious optimism from these developments, the situation cannot be rectified until the police release my nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been unlawfully detained for six weeks.

On April 26, the local officials who had abused me and my family for seven years turned their shameless savagery against my brother, Chen Guangfu, and his family. That night, more than 30 men burst into Guangfu’s farmhouse. They dragged him from his bed into a car, hooded and with his arms pinned against his back, and took him away.

The thugs, armed with helmets, shields and pickax handles, soon returned to attack Guangfu’s wife and their son, Kegui. Bleeding profusely and fearing for his life, Kegui grabbed a kitchen knife to defend himself. He wounded three of the attackers. Even then, the attackers retreated only temporarily, returning to smash furniture and confiscate mobile phones and identification papers.

Kegui called the police, but they did not respond to the emergency call for hours. When they did, the uniformed personnel took no action against their lawless colleagues. Thereafter, public security officials and their thugs openly joined forces. They stationed themselves in my brother’s home and yard and installed surveillance equipment.

They detained Kegui, charged him with attempted murder and since then have denied him access to family, friends and defense counsel of his choice. It seems that in our county one can invade another’s home and loot and beat people, and not be held accountable. Yet defense of one’s own life and property while under attack is labeled “attempted murder.”

Local officials have now offered a small amount of compensation for a portion of the property they wrongfully damaged. But they have offered neither an apology nor compensation for wrongfully wounding three members of our family, nor have they recognized the still-detained Kegui’s rights to defense counsel and a fair consideration of his case in accordance with Chinese law. Of course, destruction of furniture is wrong and must be compensated, but are the invasion of someone’s home, beating and looting not also crimes that require compensation?

If Kegui’s conduct cannot be acknowledged as legitimate self-defense, is there any meaning to the provisions regarding legitimate self-defense in China’s criminal law? Local officials’ recent offers of compensation for damage they caused and their dismantling of village surveillance and restrictions may signal that their lawless vengeance lacks the backing — financial or otherwise — of higher government organs. If so, those same government bodies have the ability to uphold justice and insist on releasing Kegui without charge, in accordance with Chinese law.

Kegui’s defense cannot possibly be fairly considered by the police who were his attackers. If the Communist Party does not release him immediately without charge, the case should at least be transferred out of Yinan County and Shandong province to a jurisdiction where investigators are more likely to take an impartial view of the evidence. Authorities should also stop frustrating Kegui’s right to select his own lawyers.

As the proverb says, when princes violate the law, their crimes are equal to those of commoners. If, instead of being investigated for their misdeeds, local authorities are allowed to prosecute Kegui, this will send a message to the world that Chinese officials are above the law: that no matter how great their crimes, they will not be held accountable, and that ordinary people who refuse to be illegally beaten and cry out for help will be considered criminals. If this happens, Chinese authorities risk severe popular condemnation on the Internet and across social media platforms that will exacerbate political instability in our country.

Many Chinese will recall the case of Deng Yujiao: She stabbed to death a drunken local official who was trying to rape her in 2009 but was charged with intentional assault. A massive public outcry pressured authorities to release her without punishment. When there is justice within, no evil can sway it. I believe the Chinese people have a strong sense of justice. They will not sit idly but will do what is right.