Gao Zhisheng’s case illustrates the range of harsh and abusive treatments that the Chinese authorities sometimes inflict on lawyers who represent unpopular clients and causes, including professional sanctions (disbarment and law firm closure), the targeting of family members, torture, and disappearance. When his family visited him in January 2013, they were forbidden to ask about his condition.
Mr. Gao, born in 1966 in Shanxi Province, is a Chinese Army veteran and self-trained legal professional. He passed the bar in 1995 and founded the Beijing-based Shengzhi Law Office in 2000. In 2001, he was recognized by China’s Ministry of Justice as “one of the country’s 10 best lawyers.” In 2007, he received the Courageous Advocacy Award of the American Board of Trial Advocates and in 2011 he received the Bindmans Law and Campaigning Award which recognizes lawyers who have used legal means to fight injustice in the field of freedom of expression. Mr. Gao’s memoirs, A China More Just, were translated into English and published in 2007.
Mr. Gao was a vigorous and outspoken advocate for his clients, including dispossessed landowners, victims of government corruption, medical malpractice victims, underground Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, dissidents, and other detained lawyers. He also published open letters to the leadership of the Communist Party detailing human rights abuses. As he took on more politically sensitive clients, the Chinese courts refused even to hear his cases.
In 2005, Mr. Gao and his family, including his 12-year-old daughter, started to receive anonymous threats to their personal safety. Beginning in 2006, he was subjected to frequent surveillance, detention, and even beatings. On August 15, he disappeared while visiting his sister’s home in Dongying, Shandong Province. His family was informed on September 21 that he was being held for suspected criminal acts. His detention lasted six months, during which police harassed his family, threatened them with retaliation if they spoke to the press, and attempted to kidnap his children.
On December 22, 2006, Mr. Gao was sentenced to four years for subversion plus one additional year of deprivation of political rights, and then given a five year “reprieve” which allowed him to stay out of jail. However, his law license was revoked and his firm was closed, thus depriving him of his means of livelihood. Over the following year, though under heavy surveillance, Mr. Gao remained politically outspoken: in April of 2007 he publicly described the torture he suffered while in custody and on September 13, he published an open letter to the U.S. Congress drawing attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in China.
On September 22, 2007, Mr. Gao was kidnapped by unidentified men, held incommunicado for two months, and subjected to beatings and torture that included electric shocks, genital mutilation, and lit cigarettes held to his eyes. In late 2007, Mr. Gao wrote a detailed account of the abuses he suffered during his imprisonment entitled “Dark Night, Dark Hood and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia,” which was published in 2009. In his letter describing his torture, Mr. Gao stated that, “Every time when I was tortured, I was always repeatedly threatened that, if I spelled out later what had happened to me, I would be tortured again, but I was told, ‘This time it will happen in front of your wife and children.”
After being released, Mr. Gao returned to live with his family but was kept under constant police surveillance. On January 9, 2009, he left home to do some errands; while he was gone, his wife and two children escaped overland to Thailand and made their way to the United States, where they were granted asylum.
On February 4, 2009, Shaanxi public security officers once again took Mr. Gao into secret detention. For over a year, no information was provided about his status or whereabouts. On March 18, 2010, he briefly resurfaced, telling reporters that he would no longer engage in human rights activism. He spent April 15, 2010, with his father-in-law in Urumqi, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; after leaving for a flight back to Beijing on April 20, he once again disappeared.
In January of 2011, the Associated Press released an interview conducted during Mr. Gao’s brief resurfacing in April, which Mr. Gao had requested not be published unless he either went missing again or succeeded in leaving China. In the interview, Mr. Gao detailed the extreme abuse, torture, and continual movement between illegal detention centers he experienced during his prior detention.
Mr. Gao resurfaced in December 2011 only to be sentenced three years for violation of his probation. His family was permitted to visit him in March of 2012, after which they were not allowed to see him for nearly a year. His father-in-law and brother were next permitted to visit him in a Xinjiang prison in January of 2013, where they confirmed that he was still alive, although were unable to inquire about his condition. Mr. Gao has been continuously denied access to legal representation throughout his detention.
In August 2014, Mr. Gao was released from prison to house arrest. In a 2015 interview, he exposed the details of his incarceration, including torture with an electric baton and three years spent in solitary confinement.
Mr. Gao has been missing since August 2017, and family and friends suspect he is in police custody. His family has called for his release due to their concerns about his health.
Last updated July 18, 2018
Gao Zhisheng, Dark night, Dark Hood and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia: (My account of more than 50 days of torture in 2007) (June 4, 2013), available at http://hrichina.org/sites/default/files/oldsite/PDFs/PressReleases/2009.02.08_Gao_Zhisheng_account_ENG.pdf
Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, Addendum, Summary of cases transmitted to Governments and replies received, ¶310-14, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/13/22/Add.1 (Feb. 24, 2010), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/13session/reports.htm.
Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Leandro Despouy, Addendum, Situations in specific countries or territories, ¶80 & 82, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/11/41/Add.1 (May 19, 2009), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/11session/reports.htm.
Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Leandro Despouy, Addendum, Situations in specific countries or territories, ¶73, 77, 84, 91, & 96, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/8/4/Add.1 (May 28, 2008), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/8session/reports.htm.
Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders, Hina Jilani , Addendum, Summary of cases transmitted to Governments and replies received, ¶428-30, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/7/28/Add.1 (March 5, 2008), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/7session/reports.htm.
Human Rights in China, Family Permitted to Visit Rights Defense Lawyer Gao Zhisheng, (January 22, 2013), available at http://www.hrichina.org/content/6513.