BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s best known rights lawyer, missing for a year and feared dead, appears to be alive and is staying at a Buddhist landmark in north China after speaking to Reuters reporters and another dissident lawyer on Sunday.
Gao Zhisheng, a Christian lawyer who helped defend members of China’s banned Falun Gong spiritual group, was abducted from his relative’s home in Shanxi province on Feb 4, 2009. Authorities have failed to provide consistent information on his fate.
Gao told Reuters by telephone on Sunday that he had been released about half a year ago and was in Wutai mountain, a sacred Buddhist landmark in coal-rich Shanxi province.
“I want to live a quiet life for a while,” said Gao, who was able to answer questions about past conversations and the venue of previous meetings he had with a Reuters reporter.
Asked if he planned to join his family in the United States, Gao said: “It’s not that easy.”
He appeared to be under some sort of police surveillance and declined further comment.
Human rights lawyer Li Heping, who had a lot of contact with Gao before the latter was jailed, confirmed he spoke to Gao by phone on Sunday.
“It’s certainly him. I spoke to him over the phone. I could tell from the way he spoke and the way he spoke to me that it’s him,” Li said, adding that Gao would not speak much about his current circumstances.
Last month Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based group which campaigns for the rights of Chinese prisoners, said it had been told by the Chinese embassy in Washington that Gao was working in Urumqi, capital of the remote, northwestern region of Xinjiang, and has been in contact with his wife and relatives in China.
At the time of Gao’s disappearance, his wife and children had already escaped from their home, ultimately arriving in Bangkok where they applied for asylum in the United States.
Gao’s family had feared he was dead, after a cryptic comment from police that he had “lost his way and gone missing” in September.
He was sentenced to four years in jail for subversion in 2006 but won a good behavior reprieve. He has, however, since been under constant police watch and periods of secretive detention, his wife, Geng He, told Reuters after her escape.
Gao had previously published instances when he was tortured while in detention. Self-educated, he had grown disenchanted with the Chinese system while representing Falun Gong practitioners and underground Christians.
In 2005, he wrote an open letter to China’s president and premier, calling for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong, which China regards as an “evil” cult.
Reporting by Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Sugita Katyal