WASHINGTON—The wife and children of a top civil rights lawyer under close surveillance by the Chinese authorities have arrived in the United States after walking across the border to Thailand, Gao Zhisheng’s wife Geng He said.
Geng said her daughter, 15, and son, 5, had suffered “great hardship” in China from living under virtual house arrest in their Beijing home.
“I left China because my family had been under tight surveillance for a long time. We experienced—in our careers and daily life—great hardship and difficulty,” Geng told RFA’s Mandarin service in her first interview since arriving in the United States on March 11 to seek asylum.
“My daughter was unable to attend school. Because she was unable to attend school, she tried to commit suicide several times,” Geng said. “I had no place to turn. So I fled with my children.”
Geng said she had left a note for Gao, an Army veteran who lost his law license after he criticized the government for its treatment of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Gao began a rolling hunger strike among fellow civil rights activists to protest the ill-treatment of lawyers and rights activists at the hands of police and local government officials.
“I left a note for my husband that I was leaving with the children,” Geng said.
“I said in my note that our daughter is miserable because she couldn’t attend school. I said I was miserable and I had to take the kids and leave,” said Geng, in tears.
Dangerous route through Thailand
Describing the family’s dramatic escape, Geng said they first left Beijing very quietly, unnoticed by the state security police who usually followed them.
“We could not travel by air. We took a train,” Geng said, adding that Gao was unable to accompany them because he couldn’t throw off the police on his tail.
“Eventually, with the help of friends, we freed ourselves from police surveillance and we walked to another country,” she said.
Geng said friends who helped her leave China were members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
[My daughter] tried to commit suicide several times..."
“We walked day and night. It was extremely hard. I did not even know the names of some of the towns we passed through.”
“It was extraordinarily difficult to get us out of China. The friends who helped us escape took enormous pains, some even risking their own lives,” Geng said.
She said she hadn’t been in touch with Gao since leaving China.
“On Feb. 4, when we had arrived in the second country, I heard from a friend that he had been detained. I am very worried,” said Geng, who has no idea of Gao’s whereabouts.
‘Very fragile state’
Now in the United States, Geng said she has few specific plans.
“The first step is to get here and to give my daughter a chance to heal her mental scars,” she said.
“She is in a very fragile state. When she feels better, I will arrange for her to get an education. It’s important to get an education.”
She said her son asked repeatedly for Gao, and whether his father had been sent to prison again.
Gao’s whereabouts remained unclear for months after he was subjected to a secret trial by the authorities on unspecified subversion charges in 2006.
Lauded by China’s own Justice Ministry as one of China’s Top 10 lawyers in 2001 for his pro bono work in helping poor people sue government officials over corruption and mistreatment, Gao was once a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. He resigned from the Party in 2005.
Gao’s fortunes took a sharp downturn after he wrote an open letter to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in October 2005 urging them to end the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, detailing a range of abuses they suffer in custody, including torture, beatings, and execution.
Report on abuses
In its most recent report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department noted that Gao’s whereabouts remained unknown.
It also noted the authorities had revoked the professional licenses of several prominent lawyers, including Gao and of Teng Biao, who offered to represent Tibetans taken into custody for their role in the March 2008 Tibetan uprising in Lhasa.
“Government-employed lawyers often refused to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney,” the report said.
“Officials deployed a wide range of tactics to obstruct the work of lawyers representing sensitive clients, including unlawful detentions, disbarment, intimidation, refusal to allow a case to be tried before a court, and physical abuse.”
Original reporting in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.