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American's bid to visit poet in Chinese prison becomes tense

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 6:54 p.m.
Devra Marcus has more than 40 years of experience working as a doctor in the Washington area.

BEIJING — Moved by the plight and failing health of a Chinese dissident imprisoned for a few lines of poetry, a retired American doctor traveled from her quiet life in suburban Washington to the gates of an eastern China prison on Saturday and asked that she be allowed to give him a medical evaluation.

Authorities at Prison No. 4 in Zhejiang Province refused Devra Marcus' request to see imprisoned activist Zhu Yufu. They temporarily confiscated the cellphone of an accompanying interpreter and deleted images from it before brusquely escorting them out of the prison, said Marcus and others who were at the prison with her.

Marcus — a 73-year-old, white-haired and bespectacled grandmother with 40-plus years as a Washington-area doctor — described the experience as surreal and at times frightening, from her surreptitious planning with a China-focused human rights group, to paranoid measures to get through immigration, to the tense 2 12-hour standoff at the prison.

Explaining her decision to confront Chinese authorities known for cracking down on those who challenge them, she said, “I figured what are they possibly going to do to an old Jewish white lady from McLean?”

While human rights groups have tried various ways of assisting jailed dissidents over the years, a surprise visit by an American woman to a dissident's prison was a somewhat risky approach for her and for the 60-year-old Zhu, said some human rights experts.

Zhu, the man she tried to visit, was sentenced to seven years after he wrote a poem in 2011 amid uprisings in the Middle East. He was charged with trying to subvert state power — the same charges under which Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and several other dissidents are being held.

The short poem — titled “It's Time” and 12 lines long — calls for people “to voice the song in your heart” and concluded, “China belongs to everyone.”

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