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Chen Guangcheng case: Republican senators urge asylum despite deal

Two Republican senators plan to introduce a congressional resolution urging the Obama administration to grant blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng political asylum despite a tentative deal already struck on Friday to bring him to the United States.

An early draft of the resolution by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) included criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of of the diplomatic crisis, support for Chen’s work in China against forced abortions and language chastizing China.

The proposal suggests Republicans see the issue as a potentially useful election year line of attack on Obama’s record on human rights and relations with China.

Some Republicans, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and human rights advocates have accused the Obama administration of mismanaging Chen’s case. The critics say the administration has been too trusting of the Chinese government, given its history of mistreating dissidents.

The first deal between U.S. and Chinese negotiators for Chen to stay in China unraveled just hours after Chen left the U.S. embassy on Wednesday.

Some charged the Obama administration of rushing the deal in order to smooth the way for high-level bilateral talks that same week and criticized U.S. officials for not securing stronger protections for Chen before escorting him off embassy grounds and not staying with him at the hospital afterward.

On Thursday, after the first deal seemed to fall apart and U.S. officials struggled to get back into the hospital to see Chen, Romney called it a “dark day for freedom” and a “day of shame for the Obama administration.”

Since then, U.S. officials have brokered a new agreement with the Chinese that aims to bring Chen to the U.S. through a temporary study-abroad fellowship at New York University’s law school.

Because Chen and his wife and two children have yet to obtain a passport and visa, much less leave China, human rights experts expressed worries on Saturday that the two senators’ non-binding resolution might unnecessarily inflame the situation and endanger the newly brokered deal.

“I’m not sure I understand what the purpose is,” said one human rights advocate, who requested anonymity because of ongoing human rights work with members of Congress. “You pass resolutions when it’s something you think the administration isn’t going to do that you think should be done. But they are already trying to get Chen out. It’s hard to see over the longterm that this doesn’t fall into the category of making political hay.”

The offices of both senators both declined to comment on the record about the planned resolution on Saturday. But a Republican aide speaking on background said, “This isn’t about politics – this is about speaking out assertively and unapologetically for basic human rights and protecting those who seek to secure those rights. That’s the purpose of this resolution.”

On Wednesday, as first deal was unraveling, Ayotte said in a statement, “The U.S. should never apologize for promoting human rights and protecting courageous human rights activists like Chen.”

Graham also issued a statement Wednesday, saying “If America does not speak up for Mr. Chen who will? If his cause is not just and worthy of support, whose is?” Graham said. “The Obama administration should not let this moment pass.”

Obama administration officials declined to comment on the planned resolution.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.

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