SCMP Apr 30, 2010

Human rights lawyer disappears, again


Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights lawyer who returned to his Beijing home earlier this month after being held in detention for more than a year, has disappeared again after enjoying just days of limited freedom, according to friends.

Gao was allowed back to his Beijing apartment on April 6, some 14 months after unidentified police dragged him from his family home in Shaanxi province, providing no explanation for the detention. 

He was seen leaving his apartment sometime between April 9 and April 12, and getting into a vehicle parked outside his building. He was carrying just a backpack when he left.

Li Heping, a fellow lawyer who is close to Gao, says he has been taken to Urumqi, where he hoped to visit his wife's father, who lives in the capital of Xinjiang. Gao's wife, son and daughter fled to the United States in January 2009, with the help of banned spiritual movement the Falun Gong. Gao was detained within weeks of his family fleeing. 

In a conversation some 36 hours after returning to his Beijing apartment with this reporter and other friends, Gao said he was expecting to be allowed to travel to Urumqi in a few days to see his in-laws. 

Gao's father-in-law said Gao was brought to his house by four police officers after arriving in the city, but spent just one night there before police took him away again. His father-in-law called Li on April 21 to say Gao was to board a plane at 4.30pm to return to Beijing.

Gao had promised to call his father-in-law after returning home, but there was no word, said Li, who went to the Beijing apartment twice to look for him. Li says Gao's mobile phone stopped working after he arrived in Beijing on April 6.

He says he has no idea why Gao was detained again after his release, which came after a barrage of international pressure from foreign governments. Gao has never been legally charged with any crime or pronounced to have violated the terms of his suspended 2006 sentence during his 14 months in captivity.

When asked if he'd called the police to ask about Gao's whereabouts, Li said, 'I didn't call because I didn't know who to call,' a reference to the mystery that has surrounded Gao's treatment. 

A self-taught lawyer and party member, Gao was once recognised by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland's top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work.

However, he ran into trouble in 2004 after investigating the persecution of members of the Falun Gong. 

He was sentenced to prison in 2006 for 'inciting subversion' after writing a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao accusing the government of persecuting and torturing Falun Gong practitioners. Gao's licence to practise law was revoked and his law firm was shut down.

He was given a suspended sentence in December that same year, after which things got worse for the whole family. They were placed under constant surveillance. 

As the first anniversary of his disappearance approached, there was an international demand for information about his whereabouts. 

Officials might have thought that returning him to Beijing would stop any interest in his case, said Li, but the opposite happened. 'They discovered after Gao returned to Beijing that he had become the focus of local and international attention,' he said. 'They're afraid.

'The party leaders have widely diverging views on how Gao should be dealt with. They're very conflicted.'

During his meeting with this reporter, Gao asked that he not be quoted regarding his treatment while in captivity, saying: 'If this is reported, I'll disappear again. 

'I don't want to say much more. I hope this time, I will have contact with my family for a bit longer.'

Despite knowing his apartment was being tapped, Gao was quite outspoken during the conversation, seemingly contradicting statements he made the day before in a Beijing teahouse that he had given up fighting for others. 

Sitting in his Beijing apartment, he appeared in good spirits. However, he was clearly concerned about his family in the US.