WASHINGTON – Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese legal rights activist who causes a furor when he sought asylum in the U.S. embassy in China last year, is a “kind and gentle” troublemaker whose courage send a message to authoritarian regimes, Richard Gere said Tuesday in presenting Chen with the Lantos Human Rights Prize Tuesday.

Blind since infancy, Chen began educating himself in Chinese law to ensure that he and others with disabilities were being treated fairly according to the nation’s tax code. Unable to get a law degree in China because of his disability, he became what is known as a “barefoot lawyer,” informing struggling citizens of their rights and fighting governmental corruption, pollution and forced abortions and sterilizations imposed to uphold China’s one-child policy.

Chen’s increasingly high-profile efforts made him an enemy of the state. In 2005, Chen was put under house arrest, followed by more than four years of imprisonment. When he was released in 2010, he was again placed under house arrest. He escaped in April 2012 and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Chen, now 41, then came to the U.S. with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their two children.

The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, created in honor of late congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, has presented the award since 2009 to human rights leaders worldwide.

The fourth recipient of the award, Chen, follows previous recipients Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina, known for hiding Tutsis in the Hôtel des Mille Collines during the genocide, and the Dalai Lama.

Gere is a member of the Lantos Advisory Board. The actor first met Chen and his family in June a month after they fled China for the U.S.

“I was taken by this very simple kind of courage,” he said. “The universe would take care of them, because they were in the right.”

Gere said the U.S. must send a stern message to authoritarian governments like China’s: “You will never be secure as long as you are in the wrong.”

After receiving the award, Chen spoke in Chinese front of the audience. Gere read a translation aloud.

“Today, I and my immediate family are free in body, but in mind, we cannot be free,” he said, because of the torment his extended family and human rights workers face in China.

After Chen’s escape, authorities arrested his nephew Chen Kegui, and sentenced him to more than three years in prison.

Americans, Chen said, have a responsibility to upholding human rights because U.S. citizens are able to petition the government to be the best version of itself.

Americans should focus on political candidates’ human rights records instead of their promises to fix the economy because “dignity, freedom and justice is more important,” he said.

But ending authoritarianism in China is up to the Chinese, he said.

“We must be the main actors in this effort,” he said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., challenged China to “match economic liberalization with political liberalization.”

“The U.S. welcomes a strong and prosperous China,” she said, but it must provide full rights for its people.

She also said that the United States should do more to fight injustices and abuses around the world.

“Let’s rededicate our efforts in the name of Mr. Chen and those who fight for freedom around the world.”