The family of jailed lawyer Gao Zhisheng, one of China's highest-profile dissidents, has visited him at a remote jail in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, but was forbidden from speaking to him freely, his wife said on Friday.
Gao, who has defended clients in politically sensitive cases, was allowed a 30-minute meeting on Jan. 12 with his fourth younger brother and Geng Yunjia, the father of Gao's wife Geng He, who now lives in the United States with the couple's two children.
But the two men were warned not to ask him about his case or about conditions inside the jail.
"We didn't ask anything about his situation, because it has to do with politics," Geng Yunjia said on Friday.
"We stayed within the rules while we were speaking to him. We just talked about our lives. The prison rules said we had to do it that way," he said, but declined to comment further.
The last family visit on March 24 last year was the first in many months, and allayed fears that Gao might have died after he had "disappeared" for lengthy periods and re-emerged to say he had been tortured.
Geng He said she found out about the visit only after Gao's brother returned home from Xinjiang this week, and that she was disappointed at the strict controls set by the authorities.
"As soon as he got to the prison, they told them a list of five or six things he wasn't allowed to ask Gao Zhisheng, including details of his case, how he was doing in the prison here, none of that," she said.
"If they asked him, they would terminate the meeting immediately, whether it had gone on for one minute or 10."
The authorities left no means for the family to contact the prison, nor did they answer questions about a possible release date for Gao, Geng said.
She said that the conversation remained limited to family news, but that Gao seemed reasonably well.
"His brother noticed [Gao] had chapped skin around his lips, and told him to drink more water," Geng said. "Gao said it was probably because the climate over there is so dry."
"He walked without assistance, and it didn't look as if there was any problem with his mobility," she added. "He seemed fairly alert, as well."
"They told me his head was shaved."
Prison guards also told Gao's brother and father-in-law that he wasn't allowed to watch television because of "insufficient ranking," but that the prison had a library.
Geng said she didn't understand what that meant. "Ranking, what ranking?" she said.
She said that she and the couple's daughter had been disappointed by the lack of new information from the latest visit.
"He asked about how everyone in the family was doing," she said. "It was a stage-managed visit; a formal meeting. He didn't give a message for us, nothing like that," she said.
"He just told me to take good care of the kids, and that I shouldn't spend too much energy worrying about his situation. Apart from that, there was no message at all for me."
But she said the lack of communication probably wasn't Gao's doing.
"I thought about it and I don't blame him, because there is very little real meaning in such visits," Geng said. "The relatives exhaust themselves traveling thousands of miles to be there, but they get nothing out of it."
Once a prominent lawyer lauded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Gao fell foul of the government after he defended some of China's most vulnerable people, including Christians, coal miners, and followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In 2006, authorities arrested Gao and handed him a sentence for “inciting subversion” that was later suspended. But over the next five years, Gao repeatedly suffered forced disappearances and torture, Geng said.
In December 2011, China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a terse announcement that Gao had been imprisoned for three years for repeatedly violating his terms of probation.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who recently launched an online campaign to send greetings cards to Gao for Chistmas, said activists were continuing to send cards for Gao ahead of Chinese New Year.
Hu said it didn't matter whether Gao received them or not, because the number of cards he received would make the authorities treat him with more respect and improve his conditions inside the jail.
"These sorts of things always benefit political prisoners," Hu said.
"It's not just about giving encouragement to the prisoner, but also about sending a message to the prison staff, and maybe making them more restrained, which can improve the treatment and safety of political prisoners in jail."
Reported by Zhang Min for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.