Gao Zhisheng

Date of Birth: April 20, 1964
Occupation: Lawyer
Arrested: February 4, 2009
Charges: parole violation
Sentence: Three years
Released: August 7, 2014

Gao Zhisheng is one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers as well as a husband and the father of two children. Gao was disappeared by the Chinese government on April 20, 2010 and was held incommunicado for more than 20 months. On December 16, 2011, the Chinese government announced that Gao had been sentenced to three years in prison for violating his parole and was imprisoned at Shaya County Prison in Xinjian on December 29, 2011.

Gao is a self-taught litigator whom the Chinese Ministry of Justice once praised as one of the country’s ten best lawyers. In 2005, after being denied access to the courts for taking on politically sensitive cases, Gao wrote open letters to both the National People’s Congress and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, calling for an end to the torture of members of persecuted religious groups. Gao’s license to practice law was subsequently revoked, his law firm shut down, and his family placed under police surveillance.

On July 30, 2006, Gao was beaten by the police officers monitoring his home. Two weeks later, he was apprehended at his sister’s home, but authorities did not notify Gao’s family of his arrest until September 21, when he was charged with “inciting subversion.” After giving a forced confession in the face of threats against his children,  Gao was convicted in December 2006 and given a suspended three-year sentence with five years’ probation, effectively placing him under house arrest.

In September 2007, Gao wrote an open letter to the U.S. Congress, detailing human rights violations in China. He was promptly apprehended and tortured, during which time authorities beat Gao with batons, held burning cigarettes to his face, and used toothpicks and electric shocks to pierce his genitals.

In January 2009, after years of government threats and constant, humiliating surveillance, Gao’s wife and two children secretly fled to the United States and sought asylum.

Gao disappeared on February 4, 2009, when he was again apprehended by security personnel without any notice to his family. After months of refusing to comment on Gao’s case, his brother traveled to Beijing in December 2009 to ask authorities about Gao’s whereabouts, only to be told he had “gone missing.” On January 21, 2010, the Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged for the first time the detention of Gao, stating “this person, according to Chinese law, is where he should be.”

Gao mysteriously reappeared on March 28, 2010, after a year of intense international pressure. He was briefly allowed to return to Beijing. In April 2010, Mr. Gao was instructed by government agents to visit his father-in-law in far Western China. On April 20, 2010, security agents told Gao to return to Beijing. However, Gao never arrived in Beijing.

For more than 20 months, Gao was held incommunicado. On December 16, 2011, the Beijing People’s First Intermediate Court ordered that Gao be imprisoned for three years to serve the full sentence imposed on December 22, 2006. State media reported that the Court withdrew Gao’s probation—set to expire the following week—claiming without explanation that Gao had “seriously violated probation rules a number of times.” Gao was imprisoned at the Shaya County Prison in a remote area of the Xinjiang province.

Gao was released to house arrest on August 7, 2014. However, he was forcibly disappeared again on August 13, 2017.

Freedom Now worked with Jerome A. Cohen, Irwin Cotler MP, Albert Ho, David Matas, and David Kilgour to free Gao Zhisheng. Professor Cohen is considered the United States’ foremost expert in Chinese criminal law and procedure. He is both a professor at New York University Law School and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Professor Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament and served previously as Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General. He served as counsel to Nelson Mandela, in addition to other notable political prisoners. Mr. Ho is a Chairman of the Democratic Party (Hong Kong), a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and a solicitor. Mr. Matas is a lawyer in private practice and serves as senior counsel to B’nai B’rith Canada. Mr. Kilgour is a former Canadian Member of Parliament, Secretary of State, Asia Pacific, and Chairman of the Canadian Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Development.

Freedom Now represented Gao as his international pro bono legal counsel.

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