The life of jailed Chinese human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, who is known for his courage in speaking out against human rights abuses in China, was featured in a documentary at the Free Thinking Film Fest in Ottawa on Nov. 3.
“Feared by the Communist Party, admired by millions, abducted and tortured, his life hanging by a thread,” are the opening lines of the 72 min. documentary, titled Transcending Fear: The Story of Gao Zhisheng produced and directed in Taiwan by Wenjing Ma.
“He represents what China could be, a China which has democracy, human rights, the rule of law,” says Edward McMillan-Scott, vice president of the European Parliament.
Gao, who is often called “the Conscience of China,” has been disbarred and “disappeared” by Chinese authorities several times and severely tortured for defending activists and religious minorities, and for his outspokenness. Gao is now held at the remote Shaya County Prison in Aksu District of Xinjiang Province.
Gao was born in a hillside cave in northern China where his desperately poor family lived. Gao started working as a migrant worker and then as a coal miner at the age of 15. He later became a street vendor, but also studied to become a lawyer. He was among the one percent of self-trained candidates who passed the bar exam in 1994.
Victims of official abuse were soon lining up at his office, and he began to win cases against all odds in China’s notoriously unjust court system. By 2001, the Ministry of Justice named him one of ten “honor lawyers” in a national television competition, although it rescinded the title four years later when he became a target of the regime.
In 2009 Gao’s wife, Geng He, and their two children managed a daring escape from China. Traveling partly on foot and by motorbike, and with the help of an underground support system, they made their way across the border into Thailand and are now living in the United States.
Geng He has since actively advocated for her husband’s release. During an event on Capitol Hill on March 5 she said Gao always fought for the rights of vulnerable social groups in China, including working free of charge for the poor.
In 2005, Gao began to defend persecuted Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and other persecuted social groups, Geng He said. As a result, Chinese authorities openly attacked him, shut down his law firm and revoked his lawyer’s license.
In August 2006, the police kidnapped Gao and on Dec. 22, 2006, they sentenced him to three years in prison with five years probation on the charge of “inciting to subvert the state’s power.” During the probation, Gao was disappeared at least six times, and he once went missing for 20 months, Geng He said. Each time he went missing, he was severely tortured.
Four days before his probation was due to end, Xinhua News Agency reported that Gao Zhisheng would be in jail for the next three years. At the end of 2011, authorities secretly transferred him to the distant Shaya County Prison in Xinjiang Province.
Family members in China were very worried about Gao’s condition. Not knowing whether he was dead or alive, they made many inquiries in an effort to visit him, but were turned down by authorities. Finally, after 10 months, family members were allowed to see him. However, police prohibited them from asking about his condition and treatment at the prison.
Geng He said during the several years that Gao was persecuted, police stayed at their home, monitoring her and the children and preventing their daughter from attending school. This all caused their family great mental and emotional trauma.
“We finally succeeded in escaping from China. The evil deeds committed by the Chinese authoritarian regime will forever be etched in our memory. They maintain their authoritarian rule with lies and violence. They are simply shameless,” she said.
Geng He said she hoped China’s new leaders would immediately release Gao and allow him to reunite with his family in America. She also hoped that members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament, and government officials of all countries, will continue their efforts to help free Gao Zhisheng.
“When you write a letter to him, mention his name in speeches, or request a meeting with him, you give him great support and afford him a measure of protection,” Geng He said.
Defending Falun Gong
David Kilgour, a former member of Parliament and Secretary of State in Canada, spoke after the film screening. Mr. Kilgour is the author, with Canadian human rights attorney David Matas, of Bloody Harvest, an independent investigation report into allegations of organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China.
Mr. Kilgour said: “Gao’s defense of farmers losing their land and Christians was serious enough, but doing the same for Falun Gong practitioners, when the regime had banned any lawyer from even representing them, was completely intolerable [to the Chinese regime]. It was Gao who wrote to us, inviting us to come to China to investigate the stealing of vital organs from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. Predictably, no visa was subsequently issued by its embassy in Ottawa to do so; he was detained not long afterwards.
“His three open letters to former party head Hu and others, protesting a range of abuses, including specific cases of torture and murder, caused his law office to be closed by authorities. Literally throngs of police soon began to follow him and his family day and night. In a characteristic response, he posted the details of this campaign on his website, resigned from the Communist Party and later became a publicly-declared Christian.
“It matters little to Party leaders that Gao’s permit to practice law was revoked in 2005 because he wrote an open letter to them about the need for religious freedom, independent judges, democracy and the rule of law; or that his wife, Geng He, and two young children were constantly followed, harassed and intimidated by public security personnel; or that even their then 13-year-old daughter, Gege, was beaten by police.
“Our report on organ pillaging, released in its first form on July 6, 2006, came to the conclusion that the allegations were true, that there is wide scale organ pillaging from Falun Gong practitioners, killing them in the process. We did what little we could to protect Gao in the first version of our report by not mentioning him, his invitation or his open letters against the persecution of the Falun Gong. Nonetheless, we were deeply indebted to him not only for his example but also for his analysis and insights.
“When Gao was almost immediately thereafter arrested, tortured, convicted and sentenced, we were appalled. But, given what we had learned about the Communist Party of China, we were far from surprised.
“What is stunning about Gao is not so much that he has stood up for justice and the rule of law, as admirable as that is, nor that he was persecuted for it, as deplorable as that is. It is rather that he stood his ground as the persecution accumulated, as it accelerated. He could not help but know that what he was doing was going to bring disaster on him; but he did it anyways.”