An international rights group has raised concerns over the possible torture and mistreatment of Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was forcibly disappeared nearly two years ago.
"Gao Zhisheng, an activist and human rights lawyer, has not been seen or heard from since he was first reported missing by his family," London-based Amnesty International said in an Urgent Action letter to Chinese leaders in Beijing.
"He has been subject to enforced disappearance, raising fear of torture and other ill-treatment," it said.
Gao was reported missing from his cave dwelling in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi on Aug. 13, 2017.
Local police in Shaanxi's Jia county and Yulin city denied that they were holding him, but said that they knew where he was, Amnesty said.
"After receiving no information for over three weeks, Gao Zhisheng’s family finally learned on Sept. 5, 2017 that he had been taken to Beijing," the Amnesty letter said.
However, the government official who gave Gao's brother the information refused to provide details of Gao his exact whereabouts, his current condition or the grounds for his detention, it said.
Gao's wife Geng He, who fled to the U.S. with the couple's two children after an earlier disappearance in 2009, said she still doesn't know where he is.
"Since Gao Zhisheng was forcibly disappeared, the authorities have never informed his family where he is being held, neither have they provided an official document notifying them of his detention, or anything like it, let alone allowed his family to visit him," Geng told RFA ahead of Gao's birthday on April 20.
"The local police station just keeps passing the buck," she said. "One minute they are saying Gao Zhisheng is being held in Yulin; the next they say he's being held in Jia county, or in Beijing."
Meanwhile, officials have been treating both Gao and Geng's relatives as "guilty by association," Geng said.
"They have demanded that my family report to their local police station on a weekly basis and sign a report," she said. "On one occasion, one of my relatives saw the content of the report they had to sign, and it referred to me and my children as fugitives."
Geng said that while Gao's actual birthday is on April 20, she typically celebrates it on the same day as their daughter's birthday, April 17.
"This year, the theme of his birthday is wanting him to come home," she said.
'No basis in law'
Former 1989 democracy movement leader Li Jinjin, now a New York lawyer, said there is no basis in Chinese law for forcibly disappearing somebody.
"Forcible disappearance has no basis in law, and it contravenes Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution pertaining to personal liberty," Li told RFA.
"Nonetheless, it is frequently employed as a tool in the internal struggles of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party, who use it to lock up their political opponents with no regard for their human rights,"
While there was a slight improvement with the enshrining of human rights into the constitution after economic reforms began in 1979, the growth of the civil rights movement has prompted growing use of extrajudicial detention, Li said.
"The Chinese government has started using forcible disappearance to deal with rights defenders during the past 10 years or so," he said.
On Nov. 11, 2017, a "security maintenance" officer told RFA that Gao is being held by state security police in Jia county, and that he was "fine."
But Gao’s family has received no additional information since then.
Amnesty called on the Chinese government to "immediately and unconditionally release Gao Zhisheng if he has been detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression."
"Pending his release, immediately disclose the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng, and ensure that he is not subjected to torture or other ill-treatment; and he has regular, unrestricted access to his family, lawyers of his choice, and medical care on request or as necessary," the letter said.
Gao, once a prominent lawyer feted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, began to be targeted by the authorities after he defended some of China’s most vulnerable people, including Christians, coal miners, and followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In a published memoir, Gao details the torture he later endured at the hands of the authorities during his time in prison, as well as three years of solitary confinement, during which he said he was sustained by his Christian faith and his hopes for China.
Activists say his continuing house arrest even after being "released" from jail mirrors the treatment meted out to fellow rights lawyers and activists detained in a nationwide police operation since July 2015.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.