August 7, 2014 / 12:16 PM / 5 years ago

China frees prominent lawyer who defended religious freedom

BEIJING (Reuters) - China freed a prominent human rights lawyer after three years in prison on Thursday, his brother told Reuters, ending the latest period of detention for the religious-freedom campaigner whose treatment attracted international condemnation.

Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is seen in Beijing in this January 6, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

Gao Zhisheng, a Beijing-based lawyer, was held for almost three years from December 2011 at a remote prison in the far-western region of Xinjiang. He was accused of inciting subversion of state power, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“He’s out, he’s free, he’s at his father-in-law’s house,” his brother, Gao Zhiyi, said by telephone. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Gao Zhisheng, 50, had been imprisoned on and off since 2006, including some periods in extrajudicial facilities without charge. He has said in interviews that he was at times tortured.

China has not commented on the specifics of Gao’s case saying it was a domestic matter but authorities have said that torture to extract confessions is illegal.

Gao attained international publicity for his campaigning for religious freedom, particularly for members of the banned religious group, Falun Gong.

Gao’s wife, Geng He, 47, told a news conference outside the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, where she lives, that she spoke to her husband by phone and his voice sounded weak.

“My heart is still heavy because he’s still being persecuted and he’s not in very good health,” she said through an interpreter, adding that she would like her husband to join her and their children, ages 21 and 10, in the United States.

Gao was cut off from his family during his time in prison, said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch.

“His family only saw him twice in the last three years,” Wang said. “Every time, they were only allowed to talk about conditions at home, and not allowed to ask about his health.”

She said there was concern that like other activists, he could find himself released from prison only to be put under house arrest.

As a lawyer, Gao had also defended underground Christians and villagers embroiled in property disputes with government officials.

President Xi Jinping’s administration has cracked down on dissent, detaining and jailing activists, muzzling Internet critics and strengthening restrictions on journalists in what some rights groups call the worst suppression of free expression in recent years.

Many lawyers and journalists were detained in the run-up to the anniversary of the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Additional reporting by Mary Papenfuss in San Francisco and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Editing by Robert Birsel and Sandra Maler

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