U.N. Agency Demands China to Release Missing Christian Lawyer

A U.N. human rights agency has demanded that the Chinese government release Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has gone missing for nearly a year.

Gao is a self-taught lawyer who fought for human rights in legal cases involving medical malpractice, land redistribution, employment disputes, and forced sterilization of pregnant women under China's one-child policy. He is perhaps best known, however, for defending journalists and religious minorities including house church Christians and practitioners of the Falungong spiritualist movement. Gao is a member of the house church community.

"The U.N. Working Group held that the detention violated international law because Gao's disappearance was punishment for exercising his fundamental human rights and because the government failed to meet even the minimum international standards for due process," the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in a statement.

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Under international law, arbitrary arrest without due process is illegal and considered a crime against humanity.

The United Nations statement was only made public by rights advocacy group Freedom Now on Monday, although the agency had sent that statement to Chinese officials last July. China's Foreign Ministry has yet to respond to the U.N. working group's statement.

On Sunday, Gao's wife, Geng He, wrote to President Barack Obama pleading for her husband's release in a commentary published in New York Times. Geng He is currently living in the U.S. with their two children after receiving political asylum.

"The Chinese government must not be allowed to claim that China is a nation operating under the rule of law while persecuting those who try to ensure that it respects the law," she wrote.

Gao disappeared again last April after having been released following international outcry. He had prior to that disappeared from his relative's home in the Shaanxi province in early February 2009.

Two weeks before his 2010 abduction, Gao had met a reporter with The Associated Press. At a Beijing teahouse where he was interviewed, Gao revealed that during his detention he was hooded and beaten on multiple occasions. Among the tortures he endured, Gao described being jabbed with electric batons and having lit cigarettes held close to his eyes.

China's central government, however, routinely denies being involved with disappearances of prominent political dissidents.

But in 2009, a report surfaced in Liaowang (Outlook), a magazine read by top Chinese officials, alleging the existence of a highly-secret but lucrative private industry used to imprison ordinary civilians traveling to China's capital in Beijing to voice grievances. Local authorities are graded by the number of complaints the central government receives, which may explain the presence of the secret prisons.

"In Beijing, a monstrous business network has emerged to feed, house, transport, manhunt, detain and retrieve petitioners," reported the magazine.

 The article also added that local officials often outsource abductions to private security firms, which demand fees of 100 to 200 Yuan (USD $15-30) per person detained in unused homes or psychiatric wards. Nonetheless, the report does not confirm whether central authorities in Beijing had knowledge of the prisons.

However, the central government has made mass arrests of its own a month after an unknown blogger called for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China's major cities, an apparent call to replicate the popular uprisings that toppled Tunisia's dictator.

Only a mere handful of people heeded the call for the uprising, however, and the protest only occurred at Beijing's affluent Wafujing shopping district. Protesters were promptly arrested by hundreds of officers gathered there.

Beijing has largely restricted information about the grievances that contributed to the recent Middle East uprisings from reaching its citizens, suggesting that central authorities fear the unrest may spread to China.

Last week, prominent Christian political dissident Liu Xianbin received a ten year prison sentence Friday after being tried for treason in The People's Court of Suining in China's south-central province of Sichuan.

The proximity of time between the "Jasmine" uprising and the nature of Liu's sentence, which is harsh by Chinese standards, suggests that the two events may be related.

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