A month ago, the human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng — my friend and colleague — limped out of Shaya Prison in northwestern China. According to relatives, Gao was pale as a ghost. He had spent the past five years — his sentence was for three — in solitary confinement, underfed and with no access to sunlight. For a long time, his wife and children, who fled to the United States to seek asylum, did not know his whereabouts or even whether he was alive or dead.
Gao grew up in an impoverished village in northern Shaanxi province, where as an adolescent he struggled for survival. He was not able to attend college, but he taught himself the law and succeeded in passing the bar exam to become a lawyer. He began practicing law in 1996, first in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, then in Beijing, and his work took him across China. With a deep sense of generosity, he made it a rule that a third of his practice would be pro bono service for the poor and downtrodden. In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Justice named him one of China’s 10 best lawyers. I worked closely with him on some of his earliest rights defense cases.
But Gao’s career as a rights lawyer quickly hit the rocks, and failing to win cases for his clients was the least of it. In 2005, he wrote open letters to the National People’s Congress and then-leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to detail the horrendous torture being inflicted upon practitioners of Falun Gong, a fast-growing meditation group facing brutal suppression. He quickly received his reply: 24-7 surveillance of his home, death threats, harassment of his wife and children, summonses, disbarment, disappearances, torture that included savage beatings, electric shocks and the piercing of his genitals with a toothpick, and, finally, solitary confinement in prison. This took place over the past nine years.
We are happy to see Gao come out of jail alive. But he is not yet free. He is now recuperating at the home of his in-laws in Urumqi. In the first days after his release, he could barely speak, but he appears to be regaining his ability to communicate. His wife reported that about half of his teeth either fell out in prison or are very loose, but Urumqi doesn’t have the dental equipment needed to treat him properly, and the authorities are barring him from traveling elsewhere to seek care. The rest of his physical condition is equally worrisome.
Furthermore, Gong’ans — public security personnel — have been paying him long “visits” every morning and afternoon. They want to know everything he does, including the books he is reading. Such unabashed intrusion may seem odd to those who live in other countries, but in China, the authorities act as though they own you and can do to you whatever they want.
Gao has never broken any law, and his persecution is a stark reminder that China has no rule of law. He now is serving a supplemental sentence of one year of “deprivation of political rights.” Ludicrous as this is (it’s not as though other Chinese have political rights, either), travel, seeing a doctor, reuniting with your family and catching up with friends are not “political” rights under Chinese law. Still, Gao seems to be able to do none of these. As his longtime friend, I have not been able to say hello to him.
It has been reported that the upcoming fourth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party will focus on governing the country according to law. Gao’s was a “top case” during the reign of domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Now that President Xi Jinping has expelled Zhou for “serious disciplinary violations,” will Xi and the party act to follow the rule of law and correct the injustices done to Gao?
Nine years ago, Gao Zhisheng appealed to “the basic humanity” of the Chinese leaders to stop barbaric crimes against citizens. Today, in front of the whole world, I make the same appeal to the basic humanity of China’s current leaders: Give back Gao Zhisheng’s freedom to seek treatment and allow him to reunite with his family.
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