HONG KONG—Prominent Chinese civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, whose whereabouts have been unknown for more than a year, is alive but has yet to regain full personal liberty, a friend and fellow lawyer said.
"They let him out six months ago," said Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Heping. "They didn't tell me about it."
"When I spoke to him on the phone, I got the distinct impression that he wasn't completely free," Li said.
He said Gao, once a top defense lawyer lauded by the ruling Communist Party for his work on behalf of the least privileged in Chinese society, had been handed a suspended sentence for inciting subversion at a one-day secret trial in 2006.
"The three-year suspended sentence lasts for five years. That's to say that if he commits no crime within five years, then he won't have to serve the three-year jail term," said Li, who said people under suspended sentence are supposed to be granted liberty if no crime has been committed.
"In accordance with Chinese law, he is supposed to have his personal freedom," said Li after speaking briefly with Gao.
Gao told Li he is currently staying near the sacred Buddhist mountain of Wutaishan, in northern China's Shanxi province.
"During our three-minute conversation, he said, 'Hey, why don't I call you back later when it's more convenient for me? Right now I have to do something with a few friends.' Then he hung up," Li said.
"I'm pretty sure that someone was indicating to him silently that he shouldn't talk any more."
Separated from family
Gao’s wife, Geng He, who along with the couple's two children was granted political asylum in the United States recently, said she too had recently spoken with Gao.
"I am tremendously relieved that my husband is alive," Geng said in a statement released by U.S.-based political prisoners' group Freedom Now.
"I am so happy that my children were able to speak to him," Geng said, adding that she hopes her husband will be allowed to go to the United States as well.
Ming Xia, professor of politics at the City University of New York, said China's ruling Communist Party has good reason to fear Gao.
"Firstly, he spoke out on behalf of victims of the anti-Falun Gong campaign and took on cases in which he defended them," Xia said. "This is a hugely sensitive matter for the top echelons of China's leadership, and it worries them very much."
"The second is that Gao Zhisheng ... is a person whose religious convictions are very strong, so he's got God on his side."
Xia said that confronted with a such a prominent activist fueled by religious faith, the authorities appear to be trying to make the lawyer less relevant in contemporary Chinese society.
"If they don't kill him outright, they will separate him from his family and make him die ideologically and in terms of his social impact, and make society forget him," Xia said.
"At the same time, he no longer has the power to effect any public actions. That's probably the basic line of reasoning which they are now in the process of implementing."
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 drew displeasure from Beijing by taking on cases related to corruption, religious freedom, and how the government has treated the Falun Gong movement—which the government has labeled a dangerous cult.
His law license was taken away, and in 2005 he resigned his Party membership.
Gao has given numerous interviews to foreign media, including graphic accounts 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 Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.