Missing lawyer 'makes contact by telephone'

Dissident calls from northern China, but exact whereabouts still a mystery
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The Independent Online

One of China's most prominent human-rights lawyers, who went missing a year ago, resurfaced mysteriously yesterday with a series of cryptic telephone calls from a Buddhist mountain retreat.

Gao Zhisheng, a prominent dissident, said he was "free at present" but refused to say exactly where he was in northern China amid speculation that he was being followed by the authorities. "I just want to be in peace and quiet for a while and be reunited with my family," Mr Gao, whose wife and children fled to the US just before he went missing, said in one telephone call.

"Most people belong with family," he added. "I have not been with mine for a long time. This is a mistake and I want to correct this mistake."

Mr Gao was one of a new breed of civil-liberties lawyers who took on sensitive cases involving underground Christians and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement before a series of run-ins with the authorities.

He vanished on 4 February last year while out walking in his home town in central China, sparking speculation that he had been "disappeared" by security forces because of his previous work and criticisms of the government over rights abuses.

Amid mounting international concern over his fate, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband raised the issue during a visit to China earlier this month, but his Chinese counterpart provided only vague explanations about where he was. The United States and the European Union had previously called on China to investigate his disappearance.

Mr Gao said that he was living in Wutai Shan, a mountain range famous as a Buddhist retreat. But he declined to answer further questions, saying he was not allowed by law, according to Associated Press. Bans on interviews are often a condition of parole.

Li Heping, a Beijing-based human-rights lawyer and friend of Mr Gao's, said he had also reached him on his mobile phone and they had spoken briefly. Mr Li believed Mr Gao was being followed by authorities. "I believe he does not have freedom," he said. "First, when we were speaking, he sounded like he wanted to hang up. He told me that he had friends around him. I'm sure that the people around him are limiting what he can say.

"Secondly, he would not tell me exactly where he is when I suggested visiting him," Mr Li said. "We are very concerned about his situation."

Mr Gao was convicted of "inciting subversion" at a one-day trial in 2006 after representing individuals persecuted for their religious beliefs and was placed under house arrest.

State media said he was convicted on the basis of articles published on foreign websites. The following year, he wrote an open letter to the US Congress detailing human-rights abuses in the country, for which he was arrested and tortured, according to rights groups.

In a statement made public just before he disappeared last year, he described severe beatings from Chinese security forces, electric shocks to his genitals, and cigarettes held to his eyes during a 2007 detention. His torturers described his torment as a 12-course meal, according to the document, and accused of him of being a traitor. "This is China. It is the Communist Party's territory," he claimed he was told. Mr Gao said he was beaten until his eyes became swollen shut.

The constant police surveillance wore on his wife and children and they fled China a month before he disappeared.

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