Prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was confirmed alive Sunday after more than a year without reliable information on his whereabouts.
“I am tremendously relieved that my husband is alive,” said Gao’s wife, Geng He, in a statement issued by Freedom Now, a group that represents prisoners of conscience.
“I am so happy that my children were able to speak to him. My children and I have not seen their father since January 2009,” she said. “We urge the Chinese government to allow Zhisheng to leave the country and be reunited with us in the United States.”
Gao, who is one of China’s most famous lawyers and human rights activists, was last seen in February 2009 when reportedly a dozen police officers seized him in public.
Over the past year, Chinese government officials have responded to questions about Gao’s location with vague and contradicting statements. Authorities many times denied knowing where he was. At other times they said Gao was “missing” from police custody or “where he should be,” without giving further details.
Still another official asserted Gao was in contact with his family, which his wife denied.
And since December 2009, there have also been rumors that the dissident lawyer was dead. Other reports said he was beaten and tortured.
But on Sunday, a few Western media agencies were able to briefly talk to Gao and confirm that he was alive and reasonably well.
The New York Times briefly interviewed Gao, during which he said he was no longer in police custody.
“I’m fine now, but I’m not in a position to be interviewed,” he said from Wutai Mountain in northern China. “I’ve been sentenced but released.”
Likewise, Gao briefly spoke to The Associated Press and said he wants to be “in peace and quiet for a while” and to be reunited with his family who are currently staying in New York.
His wife and two children managed to escape from China and was granted asylum in the United States.
“Most people belong with family, I have not been with mine for a long time,” Gao told AP. “This is a mistake and I want to correct this mistake.”
In both interviews, Gao refused to answer specific questions about his situation. He said he is currently staying with extended family.
Human rights groups believe that Gao is under careful watch by the security forces and is not free to speak to people, especially the media.
“It is assumed that he is under close surveillance, if not de facto house arrest,” said Freedom Now in a statement.
Gao elicited the ire of the Chinese government by defending groups oppressed by authorities, such as underground churches, practitioners of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, and farmers evicted from their land. Gao himself is a Christian who worships in a house church.
He also contacted Western leaders to complain about China’s rights abuses.
In 2007, he was detained by the government and tortured. After Gao’s abduction in 2009, his wife released an open letter he wrote that details the torture he endured in 2007. In the letter, Gao said he was forced to lie naked on the floor for 13 days and nights while his entire body was shocked with electricity.
He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. A bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen recently nominated Gao, along with Chinese attorney Chen Guangchen and political activists Liu Ziaobo, for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
A team comprised of the world’s top human rights specialists is currently working to urge the United Nations to take a stronger role in Gao’s case. They say China should immediately grant Gao access to legal counsel and either charge him with a crime or release him.
The legal council includes Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University Law School and one of the nation’s foremost expert in Chinese law, and Irwin Cotler, a former Minister of Justice and attorney general of Canada who served as a counsel to Nelson Mandela.