Gao Zhisheng: One year later, China still mum on missing lawyer
Gao Zhisheng, once praised by the Chinese government as a star lawyer, remains missing one year after police dragged him from his home. Rights groups are particularly worried about the treatment of the human rights lawyer.
A year ago today, Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was dragged from his home by security agents, a hood over his head. Then he vanished. He has neither been seen nor heard from since.
Mr. Gaoâs prolonged disappearance has alarmed relatives and human rights activists, who say it is highly unusual in China and fear for his safety.
âI cannot think of a case where a disappearance has occurred for this length of time,â says Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher in Hong Kong for the Dui Hua human rights group. âThere is considerable concern that some harm has come to him.â
The Chinese authorities have done nothing to assuage such concern. Repeated efforts by foreign diplomats, human rights activists, and United Nations bodies to learn Gaoâs fate have been rebuffed.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, asked two weeks ago about the lawyerâs whereabouts, said only that, âhe is where he should be.â
âHe should be at home,â retorts Mr. Rosenzweig, recalling that Gao was under police surveillance when he disappeared, under the terms of a suspended sentence he had been given in 2006.
Relentless advocate for human rights
Gao is one of the most persistent and courageous thorns in the side of the Chinese government. A Christian himself, he has specialized in defending people persecuted for their religious beliefs, including members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Named in 2001 one of Chinaâs top 10 lawyers by the Chinese Justice Ministry, Gao pursued an increasingly vociferous human rights advocacy that later earned him the enmity of the authorities.
In December 2006 he was sentenced to a suspended three-year sentence for âincitement to subversionâ; nonetheless the following year he wrote a letter to the United States Congress condemning the Chinese criminal justice system.
That earned him two months in detention, repeated torture sessions, and threats he would be killed if he spoke about his treatment, he recounted in a document he wrote and smuggled out of China after his release.
Friends who saw him then say he appeared psychologically and physically damaged. He appears to have been trying to leave China when he was caught and disappeared last February â following his wife and two children who fled through Thailand to the US, where they currently enjoy political asylum.
The only news anyone has heard of him since is the cryptic comment that a policeman involved in Gaoâs case gave to his brother last September â that he had âgone missing.â That fed fears that the lawyer might have been killed, or have been so badly treated that he could not be presented in public.
âWhen people disappear you can fear the worst because there is absolutely no counterweight to what the authorities can do,â says Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. âThe person is outside the protection of the law.â
Part of a broader clampdown
Gaoâs disappearance and the authoritiesâ refusal to explain it coincide with other recent government actions on the human rights front. On Christmas Day, the well known literary critic Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to an unexpectedly harsh 11-year jail term for âincitement to subversionâ; he had helped author a petition called the Charter 08 calling for greater political freedom in China.
Prison authorities in Shandong Province, meanwhile, have refused medical assistance to blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng who is gravely ill, according to people close to his family. Chen has another year of his sentence to serve.
Gaoâs case, however, âseems to have become personal between him and the security officers trying to keep him silent,â says Mr. Bequelin. âHis absolute refusal to back downâ and his familyâs escape appear to have earned Gao especially harsh treatment.
âWhile unfortunately there is nothing unusual these days about the Chinese authorities clamping down very firmly on dissidents or rights activist or lawyers who challenge the system too much,â says Rosenzweig, âthe level to which it seems to have been taken in this case is suggestive of something more personal.â