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BEIJING (Reuters) - Supporters of a blind legal activist, whose long confinement in his village in east China has sparked widespread anger, petitioned Beijing officials on Tuesday after some said they were beaten when they tried to visit the activist.
In recent months, dozens of supporters have been blocked from visiting Chen Guangcheng, who is under virtual house arrest in his home village in Linyi in eastern Shandong province.
Some of the supporters were beaten by dozens of men in plain clothes while trying to visit Chen on Sunday, and their complaints were later ignored by the local police, said Mao Hengfeng, a petitioner from Shanghai.
She said the petitioners then went to Beijing's Ministry of Public Security, but it was not clear whether officials accepted their petition expressing concerns about Chen's treatment.
"We were roughed up and pushed around, and some of us were hurt, but the police didn't lift a finger and ignored our complaints," Mao told Reuters about the weekend incident in Linyi.
"Now we want the Ministry of Public Security to do something about Linyi -- it's a place without any law or rights."
Mao said that as of Tuesday afternoon several petitioners were still at the Ministry of Public Security.
Petitioning officials has deep roots in China, where courts are seen as beyond the reach of ordinary people. But studies show only small numbers of people have been able to solve their problems through petitions.
When asked about the beatings, an official in Linyi police station, who refused to give his name, said: "We know nothing about it. We are not paying any attention to these things."
Chen, 39, whose confinement has drawn international attention to China's repressive controls, overcame blindness since childhood to educate himself in law and advise residents complaining about land grabs, forced abortions and other abuses.
In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in jail on charges -- vehemently denied by his wife and lawyers -- that he whipped up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
He was formally released in 2010 but has been under virtual house arrest since September last year. Chen and his wife endured a "brutal four-hour beating" by local authorities in July, the U.S. advocacy group ChinaAid said last week, citing an unidentified source.
The controversy also has ensnared U.S. film company Relativity Media, which is shooting a comedy in Linyi, because the company is working closely with the local government, which activists blame for the beatings.
"For Relativity Media to film in Linyi tells the Chinese people, either that the company is inexcusably ignorant of one of the world's most notorious human rights abuses, or that it doesn't care," said Reggie Littlejohn, president of the activist group Women's Rights Without Frontiers.
Littlejohn called for a boycott of Relativity Media, which produced the hit film "The Social Network" and is shooting "21 and Over" in Linyi.
The boycott calls stem from anger at a Relativity Media statement saying the film company was "a consistent and outspoken supporter of human rights and we would never knowingly do anything to undermine this commitment," and that it was proud of its business ties in China.
Mao, 50, said that she and other petitioners were inspired by Chen's fortitude but now feared for his safety.
"Whoever harms him, harms us," she said. "We're very worried about his health. We've heard from villagers that he's often beaten and in a bad way."
Liu Li, a petitioner from northeastern Liaoning province who also went to Linyi over the weekend, said three other petitioners were still out of contact, apparently in detention in Shandong.
"I went because I'm worried about his bad health, and we're fearful that he won't last for much longer," Liu said.
Thirty-seven people who attempted to visit Chen in Linyi were beaten by around 100 unidentified individuals on Sunday, the New York-based human rights advocacy group Human Rights In China said on Monday.