BEIJING -- More than a year and a half after prominent civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng disappeared, China's government gave the first sign Friday that he is alive, saying he would be sent to prison for three years for violating his probation.
A brief report by the state-run Xinhua News Agency did not answer key questions about Gao -- the condition of his health and his whereabouts now and in the 20 months since he disappeared, presumably at the hands of the authorities.
"Are they sending him to a proper prison? Which prison was he at before? Where were they hiding him?" said Gao's brother, Gao Zhiyi, who has been on a quest to find his sibling.
Gao's wife said from the United States she was still uneasy because of the lack of information.
"When I heard what they said, all I could think was 'Oh, it means he's still alive,"' Geng He said, crying, in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
Charismatic and pugnacious, Gao was a galvanizing figure for the rights movement, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters. Convicted in 2006 of subversion and sentenced to three years, he was quickly released on probation before being taken away by security agents in 2009 in the first of his forced disappearances that set off an international outcry.
The Xinhua report referred to his 2006 subversion conviction and said Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court found that Gao "had seriously violated probation rules for a number of times, which led to the court decision to withdraw the probation."
The report did not explain what violations Gao had committed but said his five-year probation was due to expire next Thursday -- timing which legal experts said may have prompted the government to send Gao back to jail. "He would serve his term in prison in the next three years," the report said.
Calls to the No. 1 court and the city's appeals court rang unanswered Friday.
Gao has been held incommunicado in apparent disregard of laws and regulations for all but two months of the last three years. When he emerged from the first 14-month bout in April 2010, he told The Associated Press that he had been shunted between detention centers, farm houses and apartments across north China and repeatedly beaten and abused.
He said he had been hooded several times. His captors made him sit motionless for up to 16 hours and threatened to kill him and dump his body in a river.
"'You must forget you're human. You're a beast,"' Gao said police told him in September 2009.
At one point, 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.
"It's hard to fathom what they might be referring to when they say that he violated his parole given that he seems to have been under constant supervision," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong. "It's kind of cynical."
Formalizing Gao's detention as a prison term, Rosenzweig said, gives Chinese leaders a ready response to queries from foreign governments and officials. Gao's case has repeatedly been raised by the U.S. and European governments, drawing cryptic responses if any from Chinese officials. U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke mentioned him in a public statement last weekend.
Gao's wife fled China with their two children, escorted by human traffickers overland to Southeast Asia, around the time he first disappeared. They now live in the United States.
Now living in California, Geng said she learned about the Xinhua report when a friend called her as she was taking her daughter to school. "We've asked them (the Chinese authorities) so many times, and they would never tell us anything," Geng said.
She said the family has yet to receive any notice from the police or courts about Gao's case and they still have no idea where he is.
Adding to the confusion and uncertainty, Geng said local police called Gao's elder sister in Shandong province on Thursday, and asked if Gao was there with her.
"I am not at ease," Geng said. "I still don't know where he is or what kind of condition he's in."
Activists in China seemed astounded and outraged by the news. Huang Qi, who runs a rights monitoring group in Sichuan province, strongly condemned what he said was the use of the judicial system to persecute dissidents and he offered his services to Gao's family.
"Gao Zhisheng has used his actions to write a glorious page in the history of the Chinese democracy movement," Huang said in a statement.
Amnesty International called the move to send Gao to prison "a travesty."
"This inhuman treatment must stop. Gao Zhisheng and his family have suffered enough and he must be freed," Catherine Baber, deputy director in Asia for the group, said in a statement.
German Human Rights Commissioner Markus Loening called the report on Gao a cause of "great worry" and said he would urge China once more to shed light on his case.
"I will push for Gao Zhisheng being able to live a life in dignity and freedom," he said in a statement.
Maran Turner, executive director of Freedom Now, a Washington D.C. rights group that has campaigned for Gao's release said that Gao's formal imprisonment was "blatant repression behind a thin facade of legality."
Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, a Texas rights group that focuses on Chinese issues, and a friend of Gao's said in an email that the court decision was "totally unacceptable and laughable.
"The top Beijing government leadership owes a clear explanation to the international community and Gao's family for this new hideous detention," Fu said.
He added that "silence was not a diplomatic option" and urged the United States and global community to tell Beijing the Gao case would hinder its interest in the world.
While Gao may be the most prominent government critic to be treated so harshly in years, the authorities have done so with other dissidents.
Du Daobin, an outspoken critic also convicted of subversion and sentenced to three years in prison in 2004, did not immediately start his sentence, according to the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group that runs a website for which Du wrote.
Instead, Du was released and lived under probation for four years before being sent to prison in 2008, apparently because he continued to criticize the government online.
Gao's family and supporters meanwhile have continued to campaign for him, with little result. His brother, Zhiyi, has been on a constant search for information. When he asked Beijing police in September about his brother, one officer told him Gao Zhisheng was a "missing person and no one knows where he is."