When Beijing Intermediate Court No. 1 convicted Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng of “inciting subversion”, but then suspended the three-year prison sentence for five years and sent him home in December 2006, some saw this as a sign of the Chinese government’s greater leniency towards dissidents. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as Gao’s most recent “disappearance” illustrates.
Although the government had long resented Gao’s bold legal championing of human rights victims of all kinds, his ultimate “crime” in the eyes of the state had been to break the public silence about persecution and torture of Falun Gong practitioners and Christians. His release in 2006 was actually a transfer to a new type of “prison en famille”. It was a sentence of collective punishment for him, his wife and their two children.
The terms of his suspended sentence deprived Gao of his political rights, including the right to publish. Yet nothing had been stated about 24-hour police surveillance of the entire family, frequent confinements to their apartment in a building from which other tenants had been removed, or repeated abductions and beatings of both Gao and the family. They lived in constant terror.
When in September 2007 Gao sent an open letter to the US Congress alleging a number of human rights abuses in great detail and urging international protests, the authorities decided to teach him another lesson.
In a secret location outside Beijing, they tortured him for 13 days, holding burning cigarettes to his eyes and nose, and electrocuting and piercing his genitals, among other techniques. They also told him not to dream of ever returning to the relative security of a normal prison.
After several weeks of further detention and interrogation, they sent him home and threatened to torture him in front of his family if he told anyone about his ordeal. His wife, who had already tried to commit suicide, was told that they might yet kill her husband.
Gao’s latest “disappearance” began in the early hours of last Wednesday when at least 10 police and hired thugs spirited him away, without saying a word, from his relatives’ home in Shaanxi province, where he had been forcibly taken by the authorities several days earlier. Gao has not been seen or heard from since, despite many efforts to contact him. There is, therefore, every reason to fear the worst for this courageous lawyer.
Gao is a threat to the state not just because he tried to represent Christians and Falun Gong members in court. Defying well-known taboos, he had also written a series of open letters detailing allegations of torture inflicted on Falun Gong practitioners.
The plight of Gao and his family is an extreme example of a new and more effective “punishment at home” that is less apparent to outsiders than a conventional prison sentence. Other fearless lawyers, such as Shanghai’s Zheng Enchong, suffer similar continuing abuse, long after completing their prison terms.
They and their relatives, friends and professional colleagues are all victimized by the walls of fear and silence that have been invisibly erected by the police in the middle of the world’s most bustling cities.
Can these walls be torn down? Will China’s leaders realize the damage that they inflict on the Chinese people and their country’s reputation?
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Jerome Cohen is co-director of New York University School of Law’s US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Eva Pils is assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s faculty of law. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org