Did the Chinese security forces kill Gao Zhisheng?

Fears grow that outspoken human rights lawyer has been silenced

Fears that one of China's top human rights lawyers may have died under torture in detention were growing yesterday after a policeman who knew about the details of Gao Zhisheng's arrest said he "went missing" in September last year.

The policeman's claim fuelled speculation that has been circulating for many months that Mr Gao may have been "disappeared" by security forces because of his work defending members of the banned Falun Gong organisation, as well as underground Christian church organisations.

Mr Gao is an active member of the Christian community in the capital and has represented human rights defenders and people suffering persecution for their political or religious beliefs, including members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Mr Gao is a prominent member of the weiquan, or rights defence, movement, which counts lawyers, activists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens among its number. They try to bring civil rights issues in China into the broader debate about economic reform, and they have done much to improve the lot of ordinary Chinese workers. However, when they have criticised the party, the authorities come down hard.

The US-based rights group, Christian Aid, said that Mr Gao's brother, Gao Zhiyi, had spoken to a policeman who said that Mr Gao might have disappeared. This is the first time a Chinese official has acknowledged that Mr Gao is no longer in Chinese custody, raising fears that he may be dead.

A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Mr Gao disappeared on 4 February last year. He was seen being dragged away by Chinese officials with a black hood over his head. His wife and children have since fled to the US, where ChinaAid reports that his daughter has been hospitalised because of the stress caused by her father's disappearance.

A number of human rights groups confirmed that Mr Gao went missing "while out on a walk" on 25 September last year, citing police sources.

Mr Gao is the author of one of the most powerful documents to emerge from the Chinese dissident community when he smuggled out a letter describing his treatment by secret police in September 2007.

His torturers described his torment as a 12-course meal, and after each bout they said which course he had just experienced. It is a truly shocking document.

He was accused of being too pro-American, a charge often levelled at dissenters during the Cultural Revolution in 1968.

"Shouldn't we help you have a better lesson?" Mr Gao quotes one torturer as saying. "You wrote that letter to American Congress. Look at you, you traitor. What could you be given by your American lord? The American Congress counts for nothing. This is China. It is the Communist Party's territory."

Mr Gao was beaten until he could not stop shaking, then stripped and shocked with a cattle prod, on the face, body and genitals. He says he was beaten until his eyes become swollen shut, that his guards urinated on him and forced him to admit to affairs, details of which were then passed onto his wife.