By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)-- Family members and other Chinese Christians say they remain concerned over the whereabouts of a prominent Christian human rights lawyer, several days after his probationary sentence was supposed to end.
Gao Zhisheng’s 2006 probationary sentence for “subversion of state power” expired August 14, but he has not been heard from for almost 18 months, confirmed his family.
His oldest brother, Gao Zhiyi, told Reuters news agency that he has issued missing person notices pleading for information about his brother, photos of which have circulated on the Internet with the help of sympathizers.
Gao is among China's most prominent dissidents and his case was expected to be among the human rights issues raised by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived in China Wednesday, August 17.
Gao Zhisheng was sentenced three years’ imprisonment and five years’ probation in 2006. His brother said he believes the rights activist remains in extra-judicial attention.
SETBACK FOR WIFE
It came as a setback for his wife who wrote in a distributed letter that she hoped for his quick release. "This August 14 is the last day of the probation period and should be the date when you regain freedom. I am looking forward to this day and to hearing your voice and to our family being reunited. The whole family looks forward to this day!", she wrote.
The prominent self-taught lawyer, twice-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, first went missing on 4 February 2009, according to rights activists and Chinese Christians.
After a brief reappearance in March 2010, Gao went missing again on April 20 as he travelled home to Beijing after visiting relatives in Xinjiang province.
He claimed to have been subjected to severe torture in detention. Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) which closely monitored the case told BosNewsLife that "there are grave concerns for his health and wellbeing. Gao’s wife and two children fled from China and are now living as political asylees in the US."
Gao, who was once named one of China’s Top Ten Lawyers by the Ministry of Justice, attracted attention from authorities for defending cases of religious persecution, including house church leaders and Falun Gong practitioners.
In 2007 he wrote an open letter to US Congress highlighting the alleged use of torture by Chinese authorities.
The request for Gao’s release comes as other prominent Chinese human rights defenders are under pressure, CSW said.
"Blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, is being held with his wife and six-year-old daughter in severe conditions under house arrest in Shandong province. Christian leaders are also under pressure. Pastor Shi Enhao, Deputy Chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, is beginning a two-year re-education through labour sentence for 'holding illegal religious meetings'," the Britain-based group explained.
UNDER HOUSE ARREST
In Beijing, Fan Yafeng, leader of the Chinese Christian Human Rights Lawyers Association whose members are renowned for taking on human rights and religious freedom cases, is also under house arrest and subject to "constant police harassment," according to CSW investigators.
"CSW calls upon the Chinese government to release Gao Zhisheng at the end of his probationary period. Gao’s life and work continues to be an inspiration to many around the world who speak out against injustice," said CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas in a statement to BosNewsLife.
"His disappearance has lasted too long and represents a grave denial of rights to a Chinese citizen. CSW calls upon the Chinese government to release Gao Zhisheng and all those under house arrest in China for daring to speak up for injustice."
Chinese Christians say the alleged crackdown is part of a wider effort to halt religious and other groups operating outside state approved institutions and churches.
China's Communist government has denied wrongdoing, saying it respects religious freedom within the laws of the land. It says Christians are free to worship within the state-backed Catholic and Protestant denominations.