HONG KONG—Overseas rights groups and family members of a prominent civil rights lawyer who went missing a year ago have called on the Chinese government to give news of his whereabouts.
Civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was last seen in public in February 2009, after reporting repeated kidnappings, detentions, surveillance, and beatings at the hands of authorities.
Gao’s elder brother Gao Zhiyi said he had traveled to Beijing to ask the police there once more what had happened to his brother.
“I just saw a regular officer at the Beijing municipal Public Security Bureau,” he said after returning from the trip last month.
“I didn’t see anyone in charge,” said Gao Zhiyi, who was told that his brother “went missing” in September.
“If they say he disappeared, what can I say to that?”
Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu gave a cryptic response at a regular news conference last month, saying that Gao “is where he should be.”
The remarks were interpreted by some to mean that the former top civil rights attorney was alive, at least.
Gao’s wife and children fled China in spite of close surveillance by police, and were granted political asylum in the United States last year.
Fears for Gao’s life
Gao Zhisheng’s wife Geng He said that she had heard nothing from her husband since the family’s dramatic flight across China and into Thailand, and that she now fears for his life.
“There has been no news from Gao,” she said.
“Until now it has been clear with everyone, from Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng onwards, where the person was and at what time. We always knew where they were.”
“Only in Gao’s case has there been no news. This is totally out of the ordinary,” Geng said.
“That’s why I think Gao Zhisheng is at risk. I think his life is definitely in danger. Why won’t they tell us? What would it hurt to tell us? What would they have to lose?”
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.
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid, said Gao’s case stands out because of the lawyer’s hard-won reputation.
“This is the case of a highly respected lawyer,” Fu said.
“All of the things he said and the cases he took on were all activities carried out within the limits of Chinese law.”
“He should have been encouraged by the Chinese government for helping the progress of human rights and the rule of law in China ... Instead he was ‘disappeared’ forcibly, and there is a possibility that this may have led to his death.”
He said his organization would continue to use every means possible to put pressure on the Chinese government to address the matter and make the details public.
In Hong Kong, Democratic legislator Albert Ho, who has led a campaign of lawyers calling for Gao’s release, said attempts by Hong Kong-based lawyers and legislators to uncover the lawyer’s whereabouts had led them to conclude that Gao hadn’t simply “gone missing."
“It has been a year since Gao Zhisheng went missing,” Ho said.
“We have used a number of channels and contacted a number of people in various departments both directly and indirectly to ask the Chinese authorities the question, ‘What has happened to Gao Zhisheng?’”
“It is very clear. We believe that on Feb. 4 he was taken away by officials of a state organization, and that the Chinese government had something to do with his disappearance,” he said.
“This is a political disappearance, not a simple case of an ordinary individual whose whereabouts are unknown."
Ho called on the Chinese government to take responsibility and tell the rest of the world what happened to Gao Zhisheng.
“We suspect that there is no real evidence against him of any crime committed,” he said.
“The methods they are using against him instead are no different from the Mafia ... I am very, very angry about this. I believe that anyone who cares about Chinese human rights activists will feel angry too.”
Gao’s whereabouts have 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 slamming the continuing persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement.
Civil rights defense lawyers say the entire legal profession is under increasing strain when it comes to defending the constitutional rights of individuals, with many law firms having their business licenses revoked if they choose to handle politically sensitive cases.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Zhang Min. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.