Prominent defender of persecuted Christians, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gao Zhisheng was released from prison last week after his most recent three-year sentence. But doubt remains over whether he will be allowed to leave the country to be with his family in the United States.
Zhisheng, 50, is a Christian lay leader as well as a Beijing-based lawyer. He came to prominence for defending activists and religious minorities before Chinese authorities closed down his law practice in 2005, and arrested him for ‘subversion’ a year later, a charge that is often used by China against government critics.
After years of disappearance and torture, Zhisheng was finally released from the remote Shaya Prison in Xinjiang, western China on 7 August and went home to relatives, saying his teeth were so loose he could not eat. His latest conviction was for ‘inciting to subvert state power’. A Washington DC-based group called Freedom Now, which campaigns for prisoners of conscience, says that he had been held in solitary confinement for the whole three years, in a small cell, with minimal light. It said he was fed a single slice of bread and piece of cabbage once a day and had lost roughly 22.5 kg (50 lbs). It also reports he had no access to books, and says “He can barely talk — and only in very short sentences — most of the time he mutters and is unintelligible. It is believed he is now suffering from a broad range of physical and mental health problems; he has not been allowed to see a doctor since his release”.
His wife and two children escaped China five years ago to live in the US, but he would have to be released with unconditional freedom to be able to join them.
Other high-profile activists, says Human Rights Watch, are subjected to ongoing restrictions such as house arrest after their release from prison. That China is accusing its human rights lawyers of subversion, it also says, is a clear indication of a battle for values and individual freedoms that is raging in the country.
Zhisheng, once celebrated by China as one of its top ten lawyers, is now an ex-convict barred from practising the law and talking to the media as one of China’s highest profile dissidents.
But he is just one among many human rights lawyers and activists who have been arrested, ‘disappeared’ and who claim to have been tortured in efforts to intimidate them.
In 2001, Zhisheng was named as one of China’s top-ten lawyers by the Ministry of Justice. But that was before he began to champion the rights of the poor and publicly criticise China for religious persecution and the abuse of human rights.
From December 2004, he wrote three open letters to China’s leaders, calling for an end to the persecution of those who practise Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline derived from Buddhist tradition, generally regarded as a cult movement. The practice, which was introduced to China in 1992, attracted many followers who called on Beijing for its recognition. The authorities saw it as a threat similar to unregistered Christian churches, and clamped down on the movement. As a Christian, he saw its members as unjustly treated, as too are other Chinese minorities.
The common thread is the perceived threat to the supreme authority of the Communist Party, by those who reject atheism and claim to serve a higher spiritual purpose. If pushed, they refuse to come under state regulation and control.
China remains a totalitarian nation, whose ruling Communist Party still holds absolute power. Human rights activists and others who publicly oppose the government may be subjected to discrimination, arrest and even long-term imprisonment.
In November 2005, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice shut down Zhisheng’s Shengzhi Law Firm in Beijing. They revoked his licence and found him guilty in 2006 of ‘inciting to subvert the state power’. He was given a suspended sentence, but continued to campaign for religious freedoms and human rights.
After being arrested again in 2007, he published an article claiming he had been tortured under interrogation for 50 days.
He claimed he had been followed by secret police, knocked to the ground, hooded and abducted. In the article published worldwide, he wrote: ‘The electric shock batons were thrust all over me. And my full body, my heart, lungs and muscles began jumping under my skin uncontrollably. I was writhing on the ground in pain, trying to crawl away. Wang [his interrogator] then electrocuted my genitals.’
According to Zhisheng, his interrogators accused him of sexual immorality and of writing to the US Congress. Zhisheng says they tortured him to confess using techniques they had practiced on the Falun Gong. ‘They used toothpicks to pierce my genitals. I can’t use any language to describe the helplessness, pain, and despair that I felt then.’
Eventually Zhisheng broke and wrote a letter to the US Congress saying he had been treated well and had been duped by the Falun Gong. But he later recanted and documented his alleged torture in the article, “Dark Night, Dark Hood and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia.”
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