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Human Rights lawyer disappears, again

Date: 2010-04-30

Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights lawyer who returned to his Beijing home earlier this month after being held in secret detention for more than a year, has disappeared again after enjoying just days of limited freedom, according to friends.


Gao was allowed back to his Beijing apartment on April 6, some 15 months after he’d been dragged from his family home in Shaanxi province by unidentified police, who provided no explanation for the detention. 


He was seen leaving his apartment sometime between April 9-12, and getting into a vehicle parked outside his building. Neighbors told Gao’s friends that he gave leftovers away to neighbors before he was taken away by several men. He was carrying just a backpack when he was led away.


Li Heping, a fellow lawyer who is close to Gao, says that he was taken to Urumqi, where he hoped to visit with his wife’s father, who lives in the capital of Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest. Gao’s wife, son and daughter made a daring escape from China in January, 2009, with the help of the Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual group outlawed by the government, slipping from Yunnan province, in China’s southwest, through Laos and on to Thailand, where they were granted permission to emigrate to the United States shortly after. Gao was detained weeks later.


In an interview some 36 hours after returning to his Beijing apartment with this reporter, a human rights lawyer and two Western diplomats, Gao said he was planning to travel to Urumqi in a few days to see his in-laws, who he said were like his own parents.


Gao’s father-in-law says that Gao was brought to his house by four police officers after arriving in the city, but spent just one night there before police took away again. His father-in-law called Li on April 21 to say Gao was  to board a plane at 4:30 to return to Beijing.


Gao had promised to call his father-in-law after returning home, but there was no word, said Li, who went to the Beijing apartment twice to look for him. Li added that Gao’s father-in-law told him that he’d not slept the whole night after learning that the human rights lawyer had disappeared again. Li says Gao’s mobile phone stopped working after he arrived in Beijing on April 6.


LI says he has no idea why Gao was detained again after his release, which came after a barrage of international pressure from foreign governments, human rights organizations and the international media, pressuring the Chinese to provide information about the condition and location of Gao, who was never legally charged with any crimes during his 15 months in captivity.


When asked if he’d called the police to ask about Gao’s whereabouts, Li shrugged and said, “I didn’t call because I didn’t know who to call.”

Gao, a former coal miner, soldier, self-trained lawyer, Christian and party member, he was once recognised by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland’s top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work.


However, he ran into trouble in 2004 after investigating the persecution of members of the Falun Gong. Gao was deeply moved after he uncovered the brutality that was being used against the members of the group, which led him to renounce his membership in the Communist Party.


He was sentenced to prison in 2006 for ‘inciting subversion’ after writing a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, accusing the government of persecuting and torturing Falun Gong practitioners. Gao lost his licence to practise law and his law firm was shut down.


He was given a suspended sentence in December that same year, after which things got worse for the whole family. Gao, his wife Geng He, daughter Geng Ge and younger son Gao Tianyu, were placed under constant surveillance by security apparatus. Their movements were restricted and they suffered repeated abuse, with even Gao’s wife and daughter, who was just 12 at the time, being roughed up by the police. For a period, police even moved into their apartment.


In September 2007, Gao published a personal account of his torture. The article, titled ‘Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia’, detailed horrible beatings, electric shocks to his genitals, toothpicks being stuck in his penis and having lit cigarettes held up to his eyes for extended periods, causing temporary blindness.


As the first anniversary of his disappearance approached, there was an international outcry for information about his condition and whereabouts. The Chinese government made a flurry of vague statements, but its unwillingness to give a concrete answer lead to fears that Gao–who was brutally tortured in 2007–had been subjected to severe psychological or physical abuse that made it impossible for him to be shown in public. Some feared even worse.


Chinese officials may have thought that returning him to Beijing would end the interest in his case, says Li, the lawyer, but the opposite was the case. “They discovered after Gao returned to Beijing that he became the focus of local and international attention,” he said. “They’re afraid.”


When asked who was making decisions regarding the treatment of Gao, he would only say that it was at a level higher than China’s security apparatus.


“The party leaders have widely diverging views on how Gao should be dealt with,” he said. “They’re very conflicted.”


During his meeting with this reporter, Gao asked that he not be quoted regarding his treatment while in captivity, or his political views saying, “We’re talking as friends–if this is reported, I’ll disappear again.”


“I don’t want to say much more,” he said. “I hope that this time, my resumption of contact with my family will be for a bit longer.”


Yet, he seemed quite torn, saying he was frustrated by a need to ease his family’s pain and wanting to speak his conscience.


Despite obviously knowing that his apartment was tapped by Chinese security agents, and saying that the police had threatened the possibility of forcibly sending him to a third country, if he spoke to the media, the human rights defender was quite outspoken during the conversation, seemingly contradicting statements made the day before in a Beijing teahouse with the Associated Press, in which he was quoted as saying that he had given up activism.


Sitting in his Beijing apartment, he appeared in good spirits. However, he was clearly concerned about his family, who he said was having problems in the United States, where things had not turned out as well as they’d hoped. He was particularly concerned about his daughter Gege, 16, who was hospitalized recently for psychological problems, and Tianyu, 6, who he said was also suffering from being separated from his father.


He also appeared saddened by memories of his family left behind in his apartment. When asked about a child’s stick figures penciled on the wall in a small room behind him, he smiled brightly, one of the few times he didn’t look serious, and said they were drawn by Tian Yu. He confided to a friend the night that in his first night back in his apartment that he had placed his son’s shoes beside his bed to make him feel less lonely.