HONG KONG--The family of a prominent civil rights lawyer who has been missing for more than nine months has called on the Chinese government to give them news of his whereabouts, saying that his sister had now also lost contact with the rest of the family.
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 the authorities.
"Even if Gao Zhisheng had committed a terrible crime, his family would still have the right to know what had happened to him," Gao's brother Gao Zhiyi said in an interview.
"For every question, there are three unknowns. No-one knows anything," he said. "They won't talk to us and they won't meet with us," he said.
Gao Zhiyi added that his Shandong-based sister, who had also been under police surveillance at her home, had now stopped communicating with the rest of the family.
"His sister hasn't called us or contacted us," he said, adding that he had refused previous interview requests for fear that his brother would feel the repercussions.
Hong Kong Democratic legislator Albert Ho, who has led a campaign of lawyers calling for Gao's release, said the group had written to U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of his state visit to China.
"We called on him to pay attention to our concerns about the safety of Gao Zhisheng," Ho said.
"We are not going to let this drop. We have also written to the U.S. government asking for a reply now that Obama has left."
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.
Chinese lawyers who have defended members of the Falun Gong say they are forbidden to defend their clients on the proper application of law or the nature of the incident.
According to Jiang Tianyong, a defense lawyer for Gao who has himself been prevented from practising by authorities in Beijing, the entire legal profession is under increasing strain when it comes to defending the constitutional rights of individuals. "I and other human rights attorneys in China are suffering an increasing level of harassment, suppression, and persecution [by the government], because we serve as defense counsels in cases of safeguarding the freedom of religious belief," Jiang testified in front of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Oct. 29.
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.