To speak or not to speak - that was the choice troubling Liu Guichun, whose son is serving a six-year jail term for helping start the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.

A career policeman, the elder Liu is unaccustomed to meeting foreigners. He initially rejected interviews. Now that he's accepted, he clears his throat repeatedly and runs his tongue around inside his lips, looking uneasy.But as he speaks, his anger overpowers his caution, and his voice rises.

"Liu Gang is innocent. They jailed him for seeking truth and justice. They can beat him and curse him, he won't submit. He would rather die standing up than live kneeling down!"

Strong words from anyone, but especially from a Communist Party member who long opposed his son's political activities. When his son, Liu Gang, was sent to prison, the elder Liu initially counseled him to accept the discipline.

He says prison guards' prolonged abuse of his son changed his mind.

According to statements from Liu Gang smuggled from prison over the past two years, prison guards have repeatedly beaten him, shocked him with electric batons, forced him to wear heavy leg irons and locked him in a solitary cell for weeks at a time.

Liu's case is unusual not because maltreatment is rare in Chinese prisons, but because few prisoners dare protest.

Even fewer families pass the protests on to the world, fearful it will only bring punishment for the prisoner and themselves. Hou Xiaotian, the wife of jailed dissident Wang Juntao, lost her government job because she met re-peat-edly with foreign reporters to spread word that prison officials were refusing to treat her husband's hepatitis.

Some involved in the 1989 protest have disclosed prison beatings and torture such as being forced to wear tight shackles only after being released and managing to make their way to the United States.

Many say that although elaborate torture is uncommon, beatings are regarded as normal in many prisons, for both common criminals and political prisoners.

Liu's accounts are impossible to verify independently, but Liu's father, sister and brother say they saw scars from electric batons and saw his discomfort while sitting because of untreated hemorrhoids.

The abuse reportedly started as soon as he and other participants in the 1989 protests arrived at the Lingyuan No. 2 Labor Reform Detachment, about 190 miles northeast of Beijing, in April 1991.

Authorities have responded furiously, accusing Liu of being a chronic liar. They say he is treated well.

Liu, 32, gained notoriety in June 1989 as one of 21 most-wanted leaders of the just-crushed protests for political reform. He had already finished graduate studies at Beijing University but kept coming back to campus because it was the only place where new political ideas were being discussed. His age made him a natural leader when the students began to march.

He went on the run after the Chinese army fired on the protesters. He was captured within weeks and convicted of sedition.

Liu's brother, Liu Yong, and sister, Liu Ming, were the first family members to spread word of his maltreatment. They spoke anonymously, but officials soon made the connection and barred Liu Yong from visiting his brother.

Then in November, when the father traveled to the prison for his first visit in a year, the guards turned him away, saying no family visits would be allowed for a year.

The father said he had to fight to be allowed to leave food and other gifts he brought.

"Since you are too old to take the things back home, why don't you sell them on the street?" Liu senior quoted one guard as telling him.

"Great. I'll sell them at high prices. I'll put a label on them saying I'm Liu Gang's father who has been banned from visiting his son," he retorted. He got to leave the food, but wonders if it reached Liu Gang.

That was the last straw for the father. Just as Chinese through the centuries appealed to the emperor as a last resort, he decided to travel to Beijing to appeal the ban on family visits. The entire family - Liu Yong, Liu Ming and her husband - joined him on the 480-mile journey.

They left letters of appeal at the Justice Ministry and Supreme Procuratorate. No officials would see them.