HONG KONG—China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi has referred to a “sentencing for subversion” in the case of rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been missing for more than a year, but the minister was still tight-lipped about his exact whereabouts.
“Gao Zhisheng has been sentenced for committing the crime of subverting state power,” Yang told reporters at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in Beijing. U.S. President Barack Obama has also raised Gao's case.
He didn’t say whether the sentencing referred to a suspended sentence handed down at a one-day secret trial in 2006, or to a new charge against Gao—once a top defense lawyer lauded by the ruling Communist Party for his work on behalf of the least privileged in Chinese society.
Gao’s wife, Geng He, was granted political asylum in the United States recently, along with the couple’s two children. His relatives back in China said Yang’s statement wasn’t good news.
“We are waiting to see what happens,” said Gao’s Shaanxi-based older brother, Gao Zhiyi.
Back in prison
“We’ll wait until there is some fresh news. If it’s true about the sentencing, that wouldn’t be a good result.”
Gao’s nephew said he had heard rumors that Gao has been seen in Beijing in the past three months.
On Wednesday, the BBC quoted Gao Zhiyi as nervously saying he had spoken to his brother on the telephone within the last three weeks and that “I know that he’s fine.”
“He [Gao Zhisheng] said he's quite well, everything's fine, and told the family not to worry,” his brother was quoted as telling a visiting BBC crew. “Please go home soon, don't stay for too long. Because if the local authority finds out, it won't be nice.”
Fan Yafeng, a legal scholar at the official China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said the government’s handling of enquiries about Gao has been very messy, ever since the lawyer’s disappearance .
“I think it’s most probably to do with the original conviction in 2006, and they’ve done a bit more paperwork on that, and put him back in prison again,” Fan said.
But in another case, Beijing-based lawyer Li Dunyong is currently under suspended sentence, and any form of further criminal activity would lead to further charges and require a legal process including a trial.
“If they want to cancel the suspended sentence they have to do it through a court,” Li said.
“They wouldn’t necessarily inform the family. A lot of courts are now passing sentences without informing the person’s relatives,” he said.
Foreign minister Yang denied allegations that Gao had been tortured, as feared by his family, supporters and fellow activists.
“His relevant rights based on this law have been protected, so the question of torture does not exist,” Yang said.
Fears of torture
A torture investigator at the United Nations said last week he was very concerned about Gao’s fate, while an international group of lawyers has called on the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to declare Gao’s disappearance a violation of international law.
Hong Kong Democratic legislator Albert Ho, who has led a campaign of lawyers calling for Gao’s release, signed a petition from a global legal team last week, calling on the United Nations to condemn Gao’s detention as a violation of international law.
“At the very least they will look into this matter, because China is a member of the United Nations,” Ho said.
“They can’t just ignore it, especially as China has already said that Gao Zhisheng is in such-and-such a place.”
“This shows that the authorities have him under detention. The Chinese government hasn’t been able to shirk responsibility for him since his disappearance on Feb. 4 last year.”
A U.N. spokesman on human rights said that a number of human rights departments handle complaints, and that they receive a great many petitions and letters, so any response would take time.
Gao’s case has drawn international attention for the unusual length of his disappearance and for his own earlier graphic reports of the torture he said he endured in detention.
Born in poverty, Gao became a member of the Communist Party and was named by the government a decade ago as one of the 10 best lawyers in China.
He then ran afoul of the authorities by taking on cases related to corruption, religious freedom, and how the government has treated the Falun Gong movement—which Beijing has labeled a dangerous cult.
His law license was taken away, and in 2005 he resigned his Party membership.
He was convicted of inciting subversion in a secret trial, given a suspended sentence, and released in 2006. Gao gave a graphic account of torture he said he suffered during another detention in 2007.
Civil rights lawyers and international rights advocates say the entire Chinese legal profession is under increasing strain, with many law firms losing their licenses—or being threatened that they will have their licenses revoked—should they choose to take on sensitive cases.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Nan and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.