A year ago today, Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was dragged from his home by security agents, a hood over his head. Then he vanished. He has neither been seen nor heard from since.
Mr. Gao’s prolonged disappearance has alarmed relatives and human rights activists, who say it is highly unusual in China and fear for his safety.
“I cannot think of a case where a disappearance has occurred for this length of time,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher in Hong Kong for the Dui Hua human rights group. “There is considerable concern that some harm has come to him.”
The Chinese authorities have done nothing to assuage such concern. Repeated efforts by foreign diplomats, human rights activists, and United Nations bodies to learn Gao’s fate have been rebuffed.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, asked two weeks ago about the lawyer’s whereabouts, said only that, “he is where he should be.”
“He should be at home,” retorts Mr. Rosenzweig, recalling that Gao was under police surveillance when he disappeared, under the terms of a suspended sentence he had been given in 2006.
Relentless advocate for human rights
Gao is one of the most persistent and courageous thorns in the side of the Chinese government. A Christian himself, he has specialized in defending people persecuted for their religious beliefs, including members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Named in 2001 one of China’s top 10 lawyers by the Chinese Justice Ministry, Gao pursued an increasingly vociferous human rights advocacy that later earned him the enmity of the authorities.
In December 2006 he was sentenced to a suspended three-year sentence for “incitement to subversion”; nonetheless the following year he wrote a letter to the United States Congress condemning the Chinese criminal justice system.
That earned him two months in detention, repeated torture sessions, and threats he would be killed if he spoke about his treatment, he recounted in a document he wrote and smuggled out of China after his release.
Friends who saw him then say he appeared psychologically and physically damaged. He appears to have been trying to leave China when he was caught and disappeared last February – following his wife and two children who fled through Thailand to the US, where they currently enjoy political asylum.
The only news anyone has heard of him since is the cryptic comment that a policeman involved in Gao’s case gave to his brother last September – that he had “gone missing.” That fed fears that the lawyer might have been killed, or have been so badly treated that he could not be presented in public.
“When people disappear you can fear the worst because there is absolutely no counterweight to what the authorities can do,” says Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. “The person is outside the protection of the law.”
Part of a broader clampdown
Gao’s disappearance and the authorities’ refusal to explain it coincide with other recent government actions on the human rights front. On Christmas Day, the well known literary critic Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to an unexpectedly harsh 11-year jail term for “incitement to subversion”; he had helped author a petition called the Charter 08 calling for greater political freedom in China.
Prison authorities in Shandong Province, meanwhile, have refused medical assistance to blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng who is gravely ill, according to people close to his family. Chen has another year of his sentence to serve.
Gao’s case, however, “seems to have become personal between him and the security officers trying to keep him silent,” says Mr. Bequelin. “His absolute refusal to back down” and his family’s escape appear to have earned Gao especially harsh treatment.
“While unfortunately there is nothing unusual these days about the Chinese authorities clamping down very firmly on dissidents or rights activist or lawyers who challenge the system too much,” says Rosenzweig, “the level to which it seems to have been taken in this case is suggestive of something more personal.”