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Gao Zhisheng
Activist lawyers have been at the forefront of trying to use the rule of law to press for civil liberties and combat abuses of power. For their trouble they have suffered from official interference, obstruction and physical harassment. In November 2008 at least seven of 35 lawyers who signed a petition calling for open elections in the government-controlled bar association were fired.

In July 2009, the Beijing Justice department issued a statement saying it would cancel the licenses of 53 lawyers who had taken on controversial cases. The statement implied that further cancellations were imminent. In July 2009, Gongmeng Legal Research Center, known for taking on human rights cases, was shut down by Beijing officials on the grounds it was not officially registered. In February 2009, Yitong law firm, well-known for its human rights work, was ordered to close by Chinese authorities. Hu Jia, was among those represented by the firm.

Xu Zhiyong is a lawyer and the director of Gongmeng, (Open Constitution Initiative), a small legal-aid NGO that aimed to reform China’s woeful judicial system. Gongmeng was a shining example to other NGOs of how to work within the Chinese system. However its success eventually unnerved the Party. In August 2009, Xu was taken from his home in a dawn raid. Xu was formally arrested on the charge of tax evasion after three weeks of detainment. Gongmeng was given a 1.42m yuan (£126,000) fine for suspected tax evasion and was declared an “illegal organization” by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs.

In July 2009, Liu Ruiping, Wang Yonghang and Wang Ping, all lawyers in North East China, were detained for defending Falun Gong practitioners. You Jingyou, Wu Huaying, and Fan Yanqiong were all detained after they publicized information about an alleged gang rape and killing of Yan Xiaoling in Minqing in February 2008. Li Fangping, a lawyer who has handled many job discrimination cases and represented dissidents like Wu Yuren and Xiao Wu, disappeared in April 2011.

Gao Zhisheng

Gao Zhisheng is a self-taught legal rights defender and activist lawyer in Beijing known for representing religious activists, members of Falun Gong, underground Christian churches, democracy activists, and farmers involved in land disputes. In December 2006, he was put on trial on subversion charges after enraging the Chinese government with an open letter to Hu Jintao, urging him to respect freedom of religion. He was sentenced to three years in prison with a five year reprieve which means he does not have to do time if does not commit any crimes over the next five years. Gao wife wrote in the Washington Post that her husband angered Beijing “by representing people the government finds threatening. As a leading human rights lawyer he fought for those who had been abused by policemen, those who had their land stolen by the government and those who were persecuted for their religious beliefs.”

Gao was prosecuted in 2006, and then put under semi-house arrest. A small army of “agents” watched his house at all hours. Some had taken to following his daughter to school, intimidating and scaring her. This is all eloquently recorded in Gao Zhisheng’s memoir, published in 2006, “A China More Just”. [Source: Kerry Brown, Open Democracy, September 15, 2009]

After he sent a letter to the U.S. Congress in 2007 denouncing human rights abuses in China, the government held him for more than 50 days. While in detention in 2007 and 2008, Gao was badly tortured. His wife wrote, "His captors shocked him with electricity. They burned his eyes with lit cigarettes. They stuck toothpicks in his genitals.” In one report, a secret policeman is said to have told Gao that as he had written so much about what Falun Gong followers had suffered, “now he can see what it is really like.” Those that met him afterwards said he seemed broken by the experience. His wife and two children fled China, escorted by human traffickers overland to Southeast Asia. Gao said that police seemed intent on casting him into a limbo that kept him at their whim. "Why don't you put me in prison?" Gao said he asked Beijing police at one point. "They said, 'You going to prison, that's a dream. You're not good enough for that. Whenever we want you to disappear, you will disappear.'"

Charles Hutzler of AP wrote: “Gao had been a galvanizing figure for the rights movement, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters, including members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. His disappearance in 2009 set off an international outcry that may have played a role in winning his brief release last year. [Source: Charles Hutzler, AP Washington Post, January 10, 2011]

“Among democracy and rights campaigners, Gao appears to have been singled out for frequent, harsh punishment beyond the slim protections of China's laws. "It seems to be that they are afraid of Gao in a way they aren't of others," Maran Turner, the executive director of Freedom Now, a Washington-based group that advocates for political prisoners, Gao among them. Gao's wife, brother and friends fear for his safety. They hope publicizing his account will place renewed pressure on the government to disclose Gao's whereabouts and refocus international attention diverted to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident writer awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Gao was reported missing in February 2009. In March 2010 he resurfaced in northern China. His wife said she was relieved to find he was alive and urged the Chinese government to allow home to go to the United States. Gao dropped out of sight in April 2010 after having undergone more than three years of repeated harassment and detention by police and state-security agencies.”

Gao Zhisheng has been missing since April 2011. He disappeared soon after he defied the authorities by telling a reporter about the torture he endured during an earlier detention. [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times June 23, 2011]

Gao Zhisheng Badly Beaten During His Detainment

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Geng He, Gao Zhisheng's wife
Charles Hutzler of AP wrote: “The police stripped Gao Zhisheng bare and pummeled him withhandguns in holsters. For two days and nights, they took turns beating him and did things he refused to describe. When all three officers tired, they bound his arms and legs with plastic bags and threw him to the floor until they caught their breath to resume the abuse.” "That degree of cruelty, there's no way to recount it," the civil rights lawyer said, his normally commanding voice quavering. "For 48 hours my life hung by a thread." [Source: Charles Hutzler, AP Washington Post, January 10, 2011]

The beatings were the worst he said he ever endured and the darkest point of 14 months, in ending March, during which Gao was secretly held by Chinese authorities. He described his ordeal to The Associated Press that April, but asked that his account not be made public unless he went missing again or made it to "someplace safe" like the United States or Europe. Two weeks later, he disappeared again. His family and friends say they have not heard from him in the more than eight months since. Police agencies either declined to comment or said they did not know Gao's whereabouts. The AP decided to publish his account given the length of his current disappearance.

Gao told AP that over those 14 months police had stashed him in hostels, farm houses, apartments and prisons in Beijing, his native province of Shaanxi and the far western region of Xinjiang, where he lived for many years. Weeks of inactivity were punctuated by outbursts of brutality. He was hooded several times. His captors tied him up with belts, made him sit motionless for up to 16 hours and told him his children were having nervous breakdowns. They threatened to kill him and dump his body in a river.

Gao Zhisheng Recounts Abuse

"'You must forget you're human. You're a beast,'" Gao said his police tormentors told him in September 2009. Gao described snippets of his disappearance to close friends who corroborated parts of the account he gave the AP. But there are also discrepancies in accounts among Gao and his supporters. During his 2009-10 disappearance, Gao's family and human rights groups said his whereabouts were unknown. But Gao said that he had a few moments of contact with relatives: a 90-minute visit with his older brother near their family home in June 2009; a visit with his mother-in-law at his in-laws' in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, a few weeks later; and later a furtive phone conversation with his wife that she said was via a policeman's mobile phone. [Source: Charles Hutzler, AP Washington Post, January 10, 2011]

On April 28, he said, six plainclothes officers bound him with belts and put a wet towel around his face for an hour, bringing on a feeling of slow suffocation. Two months later, he was sent back to Yulin and then on to Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, where his treatment improved. He said he was occasionally allowed evening strolls, police escorts trailing behind, during the several months he was kept in the Wild Horse apartment block on Urumqi's outskirts. The most brutal period of Gao's 2009-10 disappearance began with a Sept. 25 walk. A group of Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority group, approached him and punched him in the stomach. They handcuffed him, taped his mouth and eyes shut and took him into the upstairs room of a building, beginning a week of mistreatment that culminated with the 48 hours of pistol-whipping and other abuse.

Earlier that summer, communal violence erupted between Uighurs and members of the Han Chinese majority, and the city was tense. But Gao said he knew his assailants were plainclothes police. "Bandits would never use handcuffs," he said. His captors told him they were members of a counterterrorism unit and boasted about their harsh interrogation methods. Gao said the torture was worse than a previous disappearance in 2007, when security forces gave him electric shocks to his genitals and held burning cigarettes close to his eyes to cause temporary blindness. Gao said he learned later that he was being held in Xinjiang's Public Security Department detention center. His guards told him he was being held with suspects from the deadly July communal riots. "I said, 'All people, criminals should have their rights protected.' They bent me over, forcing my head to bow 90 degrees while standing. It was painful," Gao said.

Conditions improved after U.S. President Barack Obama's Beijing summit in November 2009. Police, Gao said, sent him back to Yulin, but to an isolated area near the desert. They pressured him to write a letter asking his brother to stop traveling to Beijing to seek his release. A group of 10 officials from Beijing arrived late in February 2010 to negotiate with Gao terms for his limited freedom. "They said that if I wanted to see my family and wife, I must play along in a performance," Gao said.

Hu Jia

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Hu Jia is an activist and blogger who has spoken out on a number of issues including democracy, the environment and the rights of HIV/Aids patients and orphans and Tibetans and wrote about other issues. He publicly criticized Beijing for not fulfilling the promises it made to win the right to host the Olympics in Beijing, a move that seemed to have exceeded the limit of what Beijing would put up with the Olympics coming up,

AP reported: “Initially an advocate for the rights of HIV and Aids patients, Hu expanded his efforts after the government gave little ground and he began to see the country's problems as rooted in authorities' lack of respect for human rights. He used the internet and telephone to chronicle the harassment and arrests of other dissidents and also published a series of articles criticising the authorities for using the Olympics to mask serious human rights abuses.”

In April 2008, four months before the Beijing Olympics, Hu was found guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” for criticizing the Chinese government and was sentenced to 3½ years in prison. Police said he planned to work with foreigners to disturb the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Earlier he angered Beijing by saying the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the trophy structure built for the Beijing Olympics, rests on a foundation of “tears, imprisonment, torture and blood.” Hu was given a relatively light sentences because he admitted to “excesses” in statements he made on the Internet and in interviews. Hu’s wife Zeng Jinyan , also an activist and blogger, and their three-month-old daughter were placed under house arrest after Hu was detained.

In late 2008, Hu won the European parliament's human rights award, the 50,000-euro ($72,000) Sakharov Prize. He was honoured in Strasbourg where, because he was in prison, his name was placed in front of an empty seat. China's communist government heaped scorn on the award, with Beijing calling Hu a criminal. Hu was seen as a favorite to win the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. “The prize will go this year to a Chinese dissident and I believe the most likely [recipient] will be Hu Jia, perhaps together with his wife [Zeng Jinyan],” said Stein Toennesson, director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, and a close observer of the Nobel peace prize, in 2008. “He has become the most well known Chinese dissident now and it has been a very long time since anyone [related to China] has won the prize.” The last occasion was the Dalai Lama in 1989.

Hu Jia Released

In late June 2011, Hu Jia was released from prison. He was imprisoned for sedition and was released at the end of his sentence, which lasted for more than three years. AP reported: “Hu Jia, a key figure in China's dissident movement, advocated a broad range of civil liberties before being imprisoned in 2008. His freedom could be limited by continued surveillance. Hu returned home before dawn on Sunday, his wife, Zeng Jinyan, said in an online message. "Safe, very happy. Needs to recuperate for a period of time," she wrote on Twitter. [Source: AP, June 26, 2011]

“In a posting last week, she said that, upon his release, Hu — who suffers from a liver ailment — would be deprived of his political rights for a year and would not be able to speak to the media. “For this one year, the focus should be on treating his cirrhosis, caring for parents and child, to avoid being arrested again,” she wrote. Like other dissidents released recently from jail, Hu may be kept under some sort of continued detention in his home, although such restrictions are illegal in China. His release comes amid one of the Chinese government's broadest campaigns of repression in years as Beijing moves to prevent the growth of an Arab-style protest movement. The crackdown began in February.”

“Hu was freed several days after the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei was released after nearly three months in detention. The release coincided with the arrival of the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, in Britain for an Anglo-Chinese summit. There are concerns that extrajudicial tactics will be used against Hu, including illegally detaining him, said the Human Rights Watch senior Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin. "Of course we are happy to have him be released. The problem is that we are not sure he is going to be released to freedom, but rather that he is going to be again under some form of limitations to freedom, such as house arrest or monitoring and harassment by the authorities," Bequelin said.”

In his first reported comments after being released from prison Hu said he wants to resume his activism but was weighing the impact on his family. During a phone interview with Hong Kong's Cable TV, Hu stressed the importance of "loyalty to morality, loyalty to the rights of citizens". "You should be loyal to your conscience," he said in comments broadcast on television. [Source: Zeng Jinyan, AFP 27 June, 2011]

AFP reported Hu now faces one year of "deprivation of political rights" — essentially a ban on political activities that typically includes not talking to media.Chinese police have blocked access to his Beijing home, suggesting he may have been placed under some form of house arrest. Hu said in the phone interview that his family was pressuring him to stay out of trouble. "They have told me: 'Live an ordinary life and don't clash with the regime because this regime is very cruel and it arbitrarily violates the dignity of its citizens'," Hu said.

"I must try to console my parents and do what I can to console them... but I can only tell them I'll be careful," he added, in a strong indication he would like to return to activism. Hu is widely expected to be hit with the same strict curbs as those apparently applied to Ai and a range of other activists and rights lawyers, who seem to have been ordered to keep quiet after their release from custody. Hu’s wife said her husband needed treatment for liver cirrhosis, a disease that worsened while he was in prison due to inadequate medical care.

Detained and Beaten Up Chinese Lawyers

Paul Mooney wrote in the South China Morning Post, “A number of Chinese lawyers were detained and subjected to various kinds of human rights abuses during the general crackdown that followed the seemingly feckless jasmine revolution protests in February 2011. They include Jin Guanghong, who was forcibly medicated, tied up and beaten and given injections (can't remember much, disappeared on April 8 or 9 2011 and returned home on April 19; Tang Jinglin, who was forcibly medicated, tied up and beaten and given injections (can't remember much, put under residential surveillance for "inciting subversion of state power" but being held outside his residence); and Jiang Tianyong , detained for two months, from February 19 to April 19 2011 and beaten for two days for refusing to collaborate. [Source: Paul Mooney, South China Morning Post July 6, 2011]

Ni Yulan and her husband Dong Jiqin are believed to have been charged with "creating a disturbance", and were taken into detention on April 17 even though it is thought Ni is in poor health. Fan Yafeng, a legal scholar, was taken to a secret location on December 9 and tortured for several days. Liu Shihui has been mmissing since February 20. Earlier, he was brutally beaten by a group of unidentified individuals at a bus stop.

Among the other are Teng Biao (detained for about 68 days), Tang Jitian (detained from Feb 16 to March 4, 2011), Li Fangping (detained from April 29 to May 4); Li Xiongbing (detained for two days, May 4-6); Xu Zhiyong (detained for one day), Li Tiantian (disappeared on February 19 and reappeared on May 24) and Liu Xiaoyuan (detained for six days)

Over a period of several months, lawyers were picked off, one after another, each in turn facing a similar cycle of abduction, detention, beatings and, sometimes, torture. The campaign has given rise to a new vocabulary of fear, including phrases such as "to be disappeared" and "to be black-hooded." Each victim emerged from captivity insisting on remaining silent.

The detentions began to intensify at the end of last year and picked up steam in February after attempts to launch a "jasmine revolution" in China. Jerome Cohen, professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University's school of law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "These people are the only source of legal resistance. It's a small group, and if you can disable them, people can't defend their rights."

Chinese Lawyer Turned into Broken Man

Paul Mooney wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Fan Yafeng, a respected legal advocate, received a call inviting him to the local police station for a chat. When he got there, a hood was thrown over his head. He was shoved into a car and taken to an undisclosed place. Fan was forced to sit motionless for more than 10 hours and was beaten if he moved. He was tortured for nine days and threatened with 20 years in prison for allegedly engaging in illegal business practices and subversion. [Source: Paul Mooney, South China Morning Post July 6, 2011]

Released almost two weeks later, the normally fearless legal expert was a broken man. He refused to go public with what had happened to him and asked friends not to contact him. Fellow lawyers thought this reticence was a mistake. "People were afraid the methods used against him would be used against other lawyers," one colleague said. One expert on human rights said the frightened lawyer was No 1 on a list of some 20 lawyers and countless activists who were targeted.

One lawyer who was detained for an extended period, during which he was not allowed to sleep for days at a time, was beaten for two days and forced to zuoban, or sit motionless, for hours. Several security officers took turns interrogating him, asking him the same hundreds of questions over and over again. In the end, he, too, caved in. When he was released, he was much thinner, people who saw him said.

Silencing of the Chinese Lawyers and More

"I'm sorry, but I can't chat with you for the time being," one normally outspoken dissident told the South China Morning Post over a Skype exchange soon after his release from detention. "I have to keep a low profile for a while." In one surprisingly frank and desperate tweet on the Twitter website, lawyer Li Xiongbing wrote after being detained for two days: "I'm really very afraid right now; please don't try to reach me, OK?" He said he was returning to his hometown to be with his parents and to seek psychological help. [Source: Paul Mooney, South China Morning Post July 6, 2011]

For years, rights lawyers and dissidents have played a game of cat and mouse with the mainland authorities, refusing to buckle in the face of harassment, licence revocations, detentions, beatings and, sometimes, brutal torture and imprisonment. But over the past six months, the feared guobao, or domestic security apparatus, which monitors the activities of activists, has adopted unknown new tactics that have frightened its targets into silence.

"The methods they're using are different now," a Beijing lawyer said. "Now no one is willing to talk. When you call them, they won't even answer the phone. They obviously received a serious warning. The methods being used have exceeded their ability to withstand the pressure." The lawyer said the level of fear has been raised, "sending a message of fright to the entire society."

Apart from going silent, some lawyers have started to turn down cases. "These lawyers used to take controversial cases," said one US-based lawyer, "but since the crackdown, it has been noted by one of the lawyers that it is difficult for people to find lawyers for sensitive cases, especially religious cases, such as those involving the Falun Gong."

Detainment, Intimidation and Torture of Dissident Lawyers in China

Paul Mooney wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Many of the lawyers and activists have been illegally detained and held for excessive periods in violation of Chinese laws. In some instances, people have been abducted off the streets, with a black hood thrown over their heads by non-uniformed security officers. The victims of "black-hooding" are often illegally held in unknown locations, incommunicado for periods ranging from days to months in what some call a "black box". Sometimes the abductions are carried out by thugs hired by the police to intimidate the targets. [Source: Paul Mooney, South China Morning Post July 6, 2011]

"The most worrisome thing is that what we know the least about is what measures they're using to keep people silent upon their release," said Jerome Cohen, professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University's school of law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Many of these guys are tough. What could be so effective? Apparently, there are new measures that are making them less willing to be contacted upon their release.

Cohen feared that the methods used by police were "more sinister" than torture methods known to have been used before. "Is there something more and more unnerving?" In one case, police summoned the wife and small child of a lawyer to the police station, where they were intimidated. Police told the wife: "We can deal with you in the same way we dealt with your husband."

Another lawyer was repeatedly warned: "You should think about your family." "This is the revival of the old custom of family retribution - collective criminal punishment," Cohen said, referring to a tradition from imperial days, when the relatives of criminals were also punished.

Forced Medications, Signed Confessions and Chinese Lawyers

Paul Mooney wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Jin Guanghong, a rights lawyer, was forcibly medicated after going on a hunger strike. Sources said he could no longer remember clearly what happened when he was in captivity. Tang Jingling, a Guangzhou lawyer who also was forcibly medicated, seemed unable to recognise people since his release, other sources said. [Source: Paul Mooney, South China Morning Post July 6, 2011]

Many of those detained were apparently forced to sign confessions, letters of repentance and guarantees they would not engage in rights work any more or have contact with foreign friends, the media or people within their circles. And if they met anyone, they were required to report it to the police. The techniques used to secure compliance appear to have been consistent. "They were made to confess, and then they made the person take the transcript and read it out to the camera," a source said. "There were varying numbers of promises and commitments that had to be made, but all of the lawyers who were detained could only be taken back if they signed guarantee promises."

Detainees were asked about a few general topics: contact with foreigners, whom the police see as anti-Chinese; oppositionists, lawyers and other activists who challenge the party; and the "jasmine revolution". "They say the draft letters of repentance that he signed reached this high," said the Beijing lawyer, holding his hand out about 30cm over a coffee table. Another source said the detained lawyer signed no fewer than eight guarantees.

"Signing a letter of repentance or a guarantee means you have been broken in the eyes of your friends and perhaps in your own eyes," the human rights scholar said. She said it was still remarkable, however, that the detainees had been so effectively silenced as a result. "In addition, some have obviously been threatened with criminal prosecution, so any documents they have been forced to sign could later be used as evidence against them. "There are also recordings of people reading their own documents, and so there is a risk of further humiliation if these are ever released."

Hornet Grabbing the Little Bird

According to a translation by Global Views, Shanghai-based rights lawyer Li Tiantian confided on her blog after her release that she had provided information about 30 people she knew. She said she "wrote down all the facts that I know." The signing of such documents, even under duress, appears to be having a huge impact on these lawyers and dissidents. [Source: Paul Mooney, South China Morning Post July 6, 2011]

Li, who was detained for three months, wrote on her blog following her release that her boyfriend and his siblings had been visited by the police several times and were asked to break ties with her. The boyfriend and his family were forced to watch a video that showed Li walking into hotels with a string of other men, implying she was having sex with them.

Li, who wrote she was in a hospital for three months, an obvious reference to her detention, published a parable on her blog one day after being released on May 24. She described a hornet that was worried a little bird might disturb its nest. According to one translation: "The hornet grabbed the little bird and began stinging it frenziedly. Unable to bear the hornet's stings and thinking there was no point suffering this ordeal, the bird realised that no one would gain anything and there was no way to change the hornet's ways. So the bird knelt down to the hornet and kowtowed in order to extricate itself.

"The hornet, knowing that the force of justice was on the rise in the animal world, didn't dare do anything rash to the bird and came up with a plan that would satisfy everyone. It agreed to release the little bird, but only if the bird promised: 1) not to speak of the past few months; 2) not to damage the hornet's reputation; and 3) not to urge other animals to stir up the hornet's nest. Finally, the bird was freed."

Li concluded by saying she would not stick her head out again for a while: "Under the present circumstances, there's nothing wrong with being a tortoise hiding its head. At least they live to an old age." But, as if she could not bow down, Li began tweeting the very next day, describing the details of her interrogations. She described how national security officers used information they had gathered about her sexual relationships with other men in an attempt to intimidate her and, by extension, other lawyers. The blog was soon shut down.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons Taipei TC; Learn to Question; More Less com; China News Digest; AP, Harvard Business School

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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