Gao Zhisheng: released but not yet free

On 7 August, Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights lawyer often referred to as the ‘conscience of China’ was released from prison. Released, but not yet free, his future remains uncertain: his political rights continue to be withheld, and public security officials will decide how that will be implemented.

He has a long road to recovery, being ‘utterly destroyed’ from extended periods of solitary confinement, torture and starvation. He now struggles to speak.

Over the years, I have shed tears about his story. I have drawn inspiration from it. He has also shaped my own work, and so I’d like to share a little of his life here with you today.

Gao was born into impoverished circumstances, teaching himself law. In 2001, he became one of the top ten lawyers in China, renowned for providing free legal services to those who could not pay, or whose cases other lawyers would not take: medical malpractice, forced demolition and eviction, and persecution of religious minorities including house Christians. He worked to uphold the law within China's own constitution; laws that the Communist regime itself does not uphold.

One pivotal case was Huang Wei, a man sentenced to three years in a labour camp, with no trial, nor appeal. Huang practiced Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual practice severely persecuted in China by the regime. Practitioners are arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned without trial, and tortured. They have no rights. 

Huang’s family asked Gao for help. He accepted, and quickly discovered all legal avenues were blocked. Gao wrote an open letter to the National People’s Congress. No reply. He conducted his own investigation, and wrote a letter to then leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, detailing his findings. You can read these letters in Gao’s autobiography.

Gao, his wife, and young son and daughter were placed under police surveillance within days of the letter being published. Fifteen days later, Gao’s law firm in Beijing was forced to close, his law license soon revoked.

He evaded the secret police, and went on a 17 day-long fact-finding mission, writing a third open letter to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, again detailing the severe torture he had documented.

Tighter surveillance and increasing severity of threats followed. There was also an attempt on Gao’s life. Undeterred, in 2006, he initiated a hunger strike movement to support civil rights activists in China. Chinese people from all over the world came together to participate. I remember this time well, as it was when I first learned of Gao’s story.

On 15 August that year, he was abducted from his sister’s home, detained, and interrogated. Other activists involved in the hunger strike faced similar treatment.

A team of police moved into his family apartment, to monitor his wife and children around the clock. His wife was later beaten, his family left with no money. In December that year, Gao faced trial in secret, and found guilty of ‘inciting subversion’. He was given a suspended three-year sentence, and released, abducted again a few days later, and disappeared, the process repeating itself over the coming months.

With narrowing options, Gao wrote a heartfelt open letter to US Congress, speaking about the persecution his family was subjected to, and writing in detail about his grave concerns for human rights in China ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

He was abducted again, returning home only two months later with scars and deteriorated health, later speaking about the torture he suffered

In 2008, Gao was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by US Congress.

In early 2009, his wife Geng He and children managed to escape secret police surveillance, fled to Thailand, and onto to the US.

Gao was abducted a month later. There was international condemnation, he resurfaced briefly, and was abducted again for the last time. He remained missing until December 2011, when the Chinese regime revealed he was in Shaya prison in Xinjiang, Northwestern China. He was denied legal representation

It seemed the regime had finally silenced him, but his wife Geng He discovered a letter written by Gao that she had smuggled out of China. She thought she had lost it.

His powerful story was once again brought to life within its paragraphs, representing Gao’s resilience, courage, and determination. Imprisoned in a remote area of China, in solitary confinement, starved, and tortured, his words and conviction still resounded around the world.

So, while Gao begins to recover, and regains strength to speak once more, I think it is our turn to speak out again on his behalf, to support him, and stand in solidarity with him, and all that he represents. Gao Zhisheng, the conscience of China.

Andy Moody is our China country coordinator.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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