By Steve Holland
PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed the Obama administration on Thursday for its handling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's case, calling it "a day of shame."
The blind dissident is under Chinese control in a Beijing hospital after taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy and then leaving it in a deal between the Chinese and U.S. governments.
Chen originally appeared to approve of the agreement, but now says he fears for his and his family's safety if he stays in China under the arrangement, which Washington had called a good outcome for the dissident.
At a campaign event in Virginia, Romney suggested the Obama administration may have convinced Chen to leave the embassy to try to curry favor with the Chinese authorities.
"If these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration," he said.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee said the U.S. Embassy may have "failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would ensure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family."
Romney has taken a hard line on China as he catches up with President Barack Obama in opinion polls ahead of the November 6 election.
He has threatened trade sanctions against the world's No. 2 economy if it does not halt what he says are currency manipulation, unfair subsidies and rampant intellectual property theft.
Only days after Obama scored points against Romney on the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Chen case has given the Republican a chance to accuse his rival of showing weakness abroad.
"We are a place of freedom here and around the world and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack," he said.
Romney's comments were unusually direct given that U.S. Cabinet members are in Beijing right now to try to secure Chinese cooperation on trade and flashpoints such as North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Chen's appeal on Thursday for asylum in the United States fanned U.S.-China tensions and threw into doubt the agreement used to coax him out of hiding in the embassy [ID:nL4E8G304H]
Romney said there were reports that Washington communicated to Chen an implicit threat to his family and perhaps sped up his decision to leave the embassy "because they wanted to move on to a series of discussions that (Treasury Secretary Timothy) Geithner and our Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) are planning on having with China."
The White House denied that the U.S. Embassy coaxed Chen to leave so as to avoid conflict between Washington and Beijing, where Clinton and Geithner are to hold talks on Friday.
"There was no pressure of any kind placed on him by U.S. officials," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
"At no point during his time in the embassy did Mr. Chen ever request political asylum in the U.S. And at every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with this family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Carney said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom)