Gao Zhisheng, a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who went missing more than a year ago, resurfaced this week with a string of phone calls to loved ones and reporters, assuring them of his safety but raising concerns about China's continued police restrictions.
In conversations with his family, two friends, and three news outlets on Sunday, Mr. Gao said he was at Wutai mountain in northern China, known as a Buddhist retreat, for some peace and quiet.
The break would mark an drastic life change from his career of defending controversial clients such as the banned Falun Gong movement and publicly condemning the Chinese government, an act that landed him in jail and, according to past statements by Gao, led to him being tortured with beatings, electric shocks and stress positions.
Now, "I just want to be in peace and quiet for a while and be reunited with my family," Gao told the Associated Press. "Most people belong with family, I have not been with mine for a long time. This is a mistake and I want to correct this mistake."
According to those outlets, Gao seemed to be under police surveillance and to have been banned from speaking openly to the media. “I’m fine now, but I’m not in a position to be interviewed,” he told the Times.
Gao told Reuters he had been released for the past half year.
He said he would spend time with relatives in the area, but that going to see his wife and two children in the United States was “not that easy.” His family had fled China via Thailand and now enjoys political asylum in America.
“I am tremendously relieved that my husband is alive," his wife Geng He said in a statement through Freedom Now, a group that works with prisoners of conscience.
"I am so happy that my children were able to speak to him. My children and I have not seen their father since January 2009. We urge the Chinese government to allow Zhisheng to leave the country and be reunited with us in the United States.”
Gao’s track record makes that unlikely.
In 2006 he received a three-year sentence for “incitement to subversion” which was then suspended. The next year, after he sent a letter to the United States Congress criticizing China’s criminal justice system, he was sent to jail for two months.
In February 2009, security officials showed up at Gao’s home, threw a hood over his head, and drove him away.
For the rest of the year, the only public information about his whereabouts was an ambiguous message from a policeman to Gao’s brother that Gao had “gone missing.”
According to the BBC, the brother had received three or four phone calls from Gao since Gao disappeared. “I’m no longer worried. I just know that he’s fine,” Gao Zhiyi said earlier this month to reporters who had gone to his remote hometown in northern China.
But, like his brother, he seemed restrained by the authorities’ possible reaction. He urged the journalists to leave quickly. “"Please go home soon, don't stay for too long. Because if the local authority finds out, it won't be nice.”