Cover Story

Remember those who are in prison

"Remember those who are in prison" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

Gao began defending pastors against government harassment, including a minister sentenced to three years in prison for printing and distributing Bibles. He joined a legal defense team for a house-church network in Beijing, but he also advocated religious freedom for others, including the Falun Gong—an outlawed and heavily persecuted sect in China whose members have faced torture and imprisonment.

“As a Christian attorney he represented the weak,” his wife says. “He represented freedom.”

Gao also represented a threat to the Chinese government. Officials directed him to stop taking Falun Gong cases, and security agents began following him and his family. Instead of retreating, Gao wrote an open letter to China’s prime minister and called for greater religious freedom. Chinese officials suspended his law license in 2005.

Later that year, Gao formally broke from the Communist Party. In a letter dated Dec. 13, 2005, he said the Party tries to “torture people out of their conscience,” and he declared: “Today, I, Gao Zhisheng, a Party ‘member’… formally withdraw from this inhumane, unjust, and evil Party.” He concluded: “This is the proudest day of my life.”

Less than a year later, Gao would disappear.

But first he continued to offer legal advice in human-rights cases, and to publish a firsthand report on the persecution of Christians in Xianjiang province. He attempted to visit Chen Guangcheng, the blind human-rights activist who exposed forced abortions and endured brutal house arrest. Chen brought headline attention to those injustices when he escaped Chinese incarceration earlier this year and took refuge in the U.S. embassy. Chen and his family now reside in the United States.

“As a Christian attorney [Gao] represented the weak. … He represented freedom.” 

— Geng He

Gao also wrote an open letter about the urgency to inform Christians around the world that “… our house church members are suffering persecution under the Chinese regime, and all on account of a willingness to love the Lord ‘with all our heart, mind, and strength’ instead of loving the Chinese Communist Party.” 

Government surveillance of Gao grew as his campaigns became more public. Dozens of security agents trailed Gao, his wife, and his young daughter. His case drew so much international attention that members of Congress in 2006 passed a resolution calling on the Chinese government to cease harassing Gao and other activists.

Geng says her husband knew his work was dangerous: “He always said if you represent cases for human rights, you will become the next victim.” 

Gao became the next victim on Aug. 15, 2006.

Authorities arrested the activist during a visit with his sister. Gao remained in custody four months. In December 2006, officials tried Gao and sentenced him to three years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Officials suspended Gao’s sentence and imposed five years probation (perhaps because of international attention to his case), but the harassment grew worse. In September 2007, Gao disappeared again. 

When he emerged 50 days later, he wrote a harrowing account of interrogation and mental torture by secret police, and said agents severely beat his naked body with electrified batons. 

By early 2009, Gao believed his family should flee. Sympathetic contacts helped the activist initiate an escape plan. His wife and two children fled China via train rides across the mountainous border. 

When they crossed the border, Bob Fu—a former dissident himself, fellow Christian, and founder of the U.S.-based group ChinaAid—met Geng and her children. In a final cell phone conversation with Gao, Fu says he asked the activist if he was willing to flee too.  

“I could sense that he was torn,” said Fu in a recent phone interview. “But he said no. He felt his calling was to stay in China and continue the fight. … It was so hard to hear. But it was his choice.”

Geng and her children arrived in the United States in January 2009. A month later, Gao disappeared. Over the next year, Amnesty International reported that Chinese officials denied knowledge of Gao’s detention. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported that the Chinese government didn’t respond to petitions regarding Gao’s treatment. 

Gao reappeared briefly in March 2010 and granted an interview to The Associated Press. The news agency reported he was “weary-looking” as he described ]14 months of mental and physical torture by Chinese authorities. Two weeks later, Gao disappeared again. 

Nearly 20 months passed with no word on his status. In December 2011, Chinese authorities announced they were holding Gao in the remote Shaya Prison. They said the attorney violated his parole. He would have to serve three more years.

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