The wife and two children of China's most famous human rights lawyer has made it safely to the United States, leaving behind a husband, father and activist who has been kidnapped by the Chinese security forces for over a month.
After a harrowing escape that involved human traffickers, the family was able to arrive in the United States on March 11, confirmed Texas-based China Aid Association, a Christian human rights group that works intimately with the persecuted church in China.
"We are very thrilled to see their safe arrival to this free nation," said Bob Fu, president of China Aid, in a statement.
China Aid had helped coordinate the escape route for the family with U.S. agencies, but even with the support of U.S. groups the trip was filled with danger.
"At one time, they had to be separated, and the 5-year-old boy was captured by the local government guards of a third country," recalled China Aid founder Bob Fu in an interview with National Public Radio posted Monday. "The mother was not aware, the sister was not aware. The group assigned to that boy was able to ... persuade the guards to release the boy."
Geng He, the wife of dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and their 15-year-old daughter Geng Ge, and five-year-old son Gao Tianyu snuck out of China through the southern province of Yunnan, where Geng He paid nearly $6,000 to human traffickers to smuggle her family to Thailand.
"We traveled by night," Geng He said. "Friends took us, and we didn't really talk. Sometimes we were traveling by motorbike, and we had to get off to walk across mountain passes. We were scared, and it was hard, but we had to keep going forward."
The family was barred by the Chinese government from applying for passports and was forced to resort to being trafficked out of their county. In Thailand, they received refugee status from the U.S. within 10 days.
Their escape followed the capture of Gao Zhisheng on Feb. 4 this year, whose whereabouts remain unknown. The family said pressure from the police made life intolerable in China, even leading to a suicide attempt by 15-year-old Geng Ge.
"Our daughter was not allowed to go to school," Geng He said. "Her mood was unstable. She tried to commit suicide and talked about it. She cut her arms with a knife and slashed an artery. It bled a lot. She still has scars today."
The teenage girl was harassed by civilian clothed policewomen who insulted her father.
Rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was imprisoned and convicted of inciting subversion in 2006. He was later released. He has escaped several assassination attempts, and he and his family had been continuously harassed by public security officers.
In June 2007, Gao was kidnapped by the Chinese government to prevent him from attending an award ceremony in the United States. His family released his open letter about his 2007 prison experience on Feb. 9, 2009, a few days after he was kidnapped.
The letter details horrendous torture inflicted on Gao by authorities during his imprisonment that included being forced to lie naked on the floor for 13 days and nights while his whole body was tortured with electric shock batons and toothpicks were used to pierce his sexual organs.
"The electric shock baton was put 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 (one of the interrogators) then shocked me in my genitals," Gao wrote.
Interrogators also reportedly used cigarettes to fill his nose and eyes with smoke for extended periods of time.
Gao is a former Chinese Communist Party member, Chinese army veteran, and now a prominent Christian attorney. He is well-known for defending underground Christians, persecuted Falun Gong, and human rights activists.
What made Gao particularly dangerous to the Chinese government was that he helped make the international community aware of China's rights abuses. He wrote an open letter to the U.S. Congress in 2007, which resulted in his 2007 imprisonment and torture. In the 2007 letter to Congress, Gao urged the United States to oppose the Beijing Olympics because of the country's human rights violations.
"What could you be given by your American lord," Gao recalled his torturers in 2007 taunting him, in his open letter. "The American Congress counts for nothing. This is China. It is the Communist Party's territory. To capture your life is as easy as stepping on an ant."
Gao has not been seen since Feb. 4 and his family is deeply concerned about him, according to China Aid. His family along with China Aid asks the international community to speak out for Gao Zhisheng and call for Chinese and U.S. officials to intervene on his behalf.
"Since Attorney Gao was kidnapped by the Chinese security forces from his hometown on February 4, this year, the Chinese government has refused to reveal Gao's situation," said China Aid president Fu. "The international community should hold the Chinese authorities fully accountable for any brutality against Gao."