• EN
  • 中文
13 Aug 2020

China’s most famous human rights lawyer is missing

China’s most famous human rights lawyer is missing.

In fact, he’s been missing for three years to the day.

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) disappeared on the 13 August 2017 and hasn’t been seen since. The last news of Gao was in September 2017, when police told his brother he was in custody in Beijing. No detention notice was provided. He simply vanished again into China’s system of enforced disappearances.

Gao, an outspoken, self-taught human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is China’s most famous victim of what is now commonly referred to as Non-Release Release (NRR) – the insidious practice of “freeing” a victim from jail or a detention centre only to be swallowed up in another kind of extra-legal detention – varying from outright disappearance, enforced house arrest, or intense surveillance.

Gao has been disappeared so many times and for so long by Chinese police that his treatment arguably represents the harshest example of NRR to date.

Gao, now in his mid 50s, was born into a family of modest means. After a spell as a solider, a miner, a factory worker and a market vendor, his strong conviction for justice led him to pursue human rights law. He became one of the earliest and most formidable rights lawyers. He took on cases that battled religious oppression (members of an underground Christian church and Falun Gong), police abuse, corruption, and illegal property seizures. But his tireless rights defense work quickly earned him the attention of the authorities. In 2006 he was disappeared, tortured, and sentenced to prison. From that time on, according to fellow human rights lawyer Teng Biao, he has never known a day’s freedom. Every release from jail or a detention centre has taken him straight back into some form of NRR.

Gao was always aware what would likely happen to him. Back in 2005, The New York Times reported Gao as saying: "You cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself."


Timeline of Gao’s unending persecution

  • Aug 2006: Police kidnap Gao
  • Sep 2006: Gao is arrested
  • Dec 2006: Gao is sentenced to three years for inciting state subversion, this is later commuted to a five-year suspended sentence, including deprivation of political rights
  • Sep 2007: Gao disappears for six weeks, later reveals he was kidnapped by police and severely tortured
  • Jan 2009: Gao’s wife and children flee to the US
  • Feb 2009: Gao disappears again, this time for 14 months
  • Mar 2010: Gao emerges, explains he was detained & tortured.
  • April 2010: Gao disappears again, this time for 20 months
  • Dec 2011: Media report he is in prison for three years because he broke his probation from Dec 2006 sentence.
  • Aug 2014: Gao is released but forced to live in a cave with his brother in Shaanxi province. Police prevent him from leaving the village or seeking medical treatment. He appears thin and ill, with teeth missing. In a video interview that was smuggled out he says was held in solitary confinement for three years. His “release”, he says, should be referred to in quote marks.
  • Aug 2017: Gao disappears again.
  • Sep 2017: Police inform Gao’s brother that he is in custody in Beijing.

Until today there has been no news of his whereabouts.