BEIJING — Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng has been released after spending three years in prison but authorities may severely restrict his freedom, his lawyer, friends and human rights activists said Thursday.
Gao, 50, has defended some of China’s most persecuted people. He was released Thursday after serving a sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” a state security charge that Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, says is often used against peaceful government critics.
But it’s expected that Chinese authorities will try to maintain a tight grip on his freedom, such as strict house arrest.
His brother, Gao Zhiyi, who had traveled to Gao’s remote desert prison in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, confirmed that he left the area Tuesday with his brother. “He has come out (of prison), and we are already in Urumqi,” he told USA TODAY by telephone from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
The pair will return to the dissident’s old home in Yulin, Shaanxi province, his brother told Hu Jia, a human rights activist in Beijing, in an audio recording shared by Hu.
Hu said that Gao’s teeth are in bad condition, so they will first stay for a few days in Urumqi to seek treatment.
“Gao will not be given real freedom as the Communist Party considers him even more dangerous than Chen Guangcheng,” said Hu. Chen is the blind lawyer who escaped post-prison house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing before later being allowed to leave for the USA.
“The party worries Gao will become a leading figure of the rights defenders, so the restrictions on him will be long-term,” Hu predicted.
He said that Gao is not allowed to make telephone calls and has not been in contact with his wife, who fled to the USA after being harassed by the Chinese authorities. Geng He escaped China five years ago with the couple’s two children. She is expected to hold a news conference later Thursday in San Francisco.
Gao was named one of China’s top 10 lawyers in a 2001 event co-organized by China’s Ministry of Justice and the state broadcaster CCTV, but since 2005 his defense of the disadvantaged and public criticism of human rights abuses has led to a decade of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture.
Gao, whose name was put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize, angered Beijing with his fearless defense of practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China.
“I am concerned he will be under further restrictions after his release,” said Li Xiongbing, one of Gao’s Beijing-based lawyers. Measures such as house arrest are considered extra-legal, and not sanctioned by any Chinese law.
The lawyer does not expect to see his client anytime soon.
“I expect very few people will be able to meet Gao,” said Li, who also worried whether Gao would be granted his right “as a legal citizen of China” to travel abroad to visit his family, and return home.
“The political environment does not indicate Gao will have better treatment after his freedom,” said Bob Fu, a family friend, and the founder of China Aid, a Texas-based Christian rights group.
Fu said that although some of the worst abuses suffered by Gao and his family occurred under previous Chinese leaders, “the amount of political oppression, and violation of citizens’ freedoms, against human rights defenders and lawyers has worsened in the past few months.”
Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the crackdown on civil society in recent months has left Chinese human rights at “a new low,” and she doubted Gao would enjoy real freedom.
Fu said the international community, especially the USA, must now press Beijing to treat Gao fairly. “If the USA is willing to negotiate, one of the better outcomes may be to go to the USA,” said Fu, although he recalled Gao telling him in 2009 that he would reject exile in order to stay and push for freedoms in China.
Fu likened Gao to the lawyer Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
“(Gao) appealed for social justice and the rule of law in treating Falun Gong practitioners when it was even a taboo just to talk about Falun Gong,” he said. Fu described Gao as a “committed Protestant Christian” who also defended underground church leaders.
There was praise too from China’s tightly monitored social media users.
“Gao Zhisheng is the conscience of Chinese lawyers, and the pioneer of rights defense lawyers,” wrote Cheng Zhunqiang, a lawyer in south Guangzhou city, on the micro-blog service Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. Twitter remains banned in China.
“I hope he achieves genuine freedom,” said Cheng.
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