Between July and November 2015, the Chinese government initiated an unprecedented crackdown on lawyers throughout China. More than 300 lawyers were rounded up during those months, many of them taken from their homes in the middle of the night, away from their families and loved ones. By early December, most had been released, but approximately 40 are still detained or missing.
Gao Zhisheng was not caught up in this dragnet. A self-taught advocate and one of China’s most well-known human rights lawyers, he was first targeted by the Chinese government more than a decade ago for his representation of the country’s most vulnerable, including victims of land seizures and individuals persecuted for their faith. In addition to his legal efforts, he invoked the ire of the government in 2005 by publicly calling on the Chinese Communist Party leadership to end torture of members of persecuted religious groups and for a letter he wrote in 2007 to the U.S. Congress about human rights violations in China.
In retaliation for these activities, the Chinese government revoked his law license, shut down his law firm, and put his family under surveillance. In 2006, he was beaten by police officers and given a suspended three year sentence with five years’ probation for “inciting subversion.” Gao gave a false confession after he was beaten and his children threatened.
His family eventually fled China in January 2009 after years of government harassment and sought asylum in the U.S. The very next month Gao was abducted by security personnel, his arrest only acknowledged by the Chinese government nearly a year later in January 2010. After being held in secret for so long, he was released and mysteriously reappeared in March 2010.
A month later, in April 2010, Gao made the long journey from Beijing to the far Western corner of China to visit his father-in-law. The decision to travel across the country was not entirely his own. He did so at the instruction of government authorities. Only a few weeks into his visit he was told by security agents to return to Beijing. It would be the last day any of his family or friends would know of his whereabouts for more than 20 months.
In December 2011, Gao was charged with violating his probation – set to expire the following week – and sentenced to serve three years in jail. He was kept in a remote prison, held in solitary confinement in a very small cell with minimal light, and barred from receiving any reading materials, television, or access to anyone or anything. The prison conditions and withholding of food caused Gao to lose a substantial amount of weight and several teeth. It is believed he was tortured.
In August 2014, Gao was released into house arrest with his in-laws where he was to serve his supplemental sentence of one year of “deprivation of political rights.” He was barely able to talk and is believed to be suffering from a range of physical and mental health problems, exacerbated by the fact that he has not been allowed to see a doctor since his release. Gao’s sentence was set to expire in August 2015, yet the Chinese government has not lifted it.
Gao will turn 52 years old today, six of those past years spent under some form of detention or another, hundreds of those past days spent beaten and tortured, all of that time away from his wife and two children. The international community must keep up pressure for not only Gao’s release, but the release of the dozens of lawyers still imprisoned.