Ahead of Chinese rights lawyer's release from prison, worries grow he will be denied freedom

A fiery critic of China's authoritarian government whose imprisonment and accounts of torture triggered international criticism of Beijing appears set for release Thursday amid concerns he will continue to be denied freedom outside prison.

Before being detained and jailed, Gao Zhisheng was a leading figure in the country's small community of rights lawyers and was admired for his bold defense of politically sensitive members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and farmers with land disputes. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work.

"Gao was a great and respected lawyer who, by defending the rights of many people and causes, courageously sought to give meaning to official claims to be establishing a 'rule of law' in China," said Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University. "His huge number of supporters inside and outside China will be eager to learn his fate."

Gao's dauntless efforts drew the ire of Chinese authorities, who from 2006 began detaining him and holding him incommunicado in secret locations like farmhouses and detention centers for many months. Gao told The Associated Press in 2010 when he briefly resurfaced that he had been repeatedly beaten and abused while detained. In 2011, he was imprisoned on the charge of inciting subversion.

His release from a remote prison in the far west is a potential turning point for Gao after being allowed only two visits by relatives over the past three years. Fearing for their safety, Gao's wife and two children fled in 2009 to the United States where they were accepted as refugees, and have not been in touch with Gao for many years.

"What's difficult is I don't know how he's been doing," his wife Geng He said in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco. "Does he have food to eat, clothes to wear? Has he been abused? Every time I think about the torture he endured whenever he went missing, I would lose sleep for many nights."

"I feel that this society is just too unfair. Good people are being persecuted," she said tearfully. "We just want to be reunited with him."

Geng said Gao's elder brother was told by authorities at the prison in Shaya county in the western region of Xinjiang that Gao would be released Thursday. Asked to confirm the information, a Shaya prison division chief named Mukhtar said, "I can't tell you." Officials at the county's police and judicial bureaus either could not be reached or said they did not know about the case.

Gao may not be allowed to return to his residence in Beijing, let alone leave the country for the United States due to his international profile and his blunt criticisms of the Communist Party, activists said.

"Gao was willing to help those who were suffering widespread oppression at that time in Chinese society, people who no one else dared to go near," said Hu Jia, a Beijing-based activist who was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in the same year as Gao. "The authorities will want to try to silence him."

Others of similar standing such as Hu and the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng were placed under house arrest after being released from jail.

"We fear that he would step out of the small door of the prison only to enter a larger prison in the hands of the state security, not only barred from returning to Beijing but also prevented from seeing his family and friends," said Chinese rights lawyer Tang Jitian. "This would show that the authorities have a problem with rectifying their mistakes and winning the trust of the world."

Gao will be deprived of political rights such as freedom of speech and assembly for a year after his release, during which he will be under police supervision, said John Kamm, a veteran human rights campaigner who lobbies for the rights of Chinese political prisoners. Gao is registered as a resident of Urumqi city in the far west and is most likely to serve the year there, Kamm said in an email.

There are regulations that empower police to "manage" such individuals, Kamm said, and in some cases allow authorities to "disappear" recently released political prisoners.

Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said if the authorities make Gao disappear, they would do so at the risk of further damaging the government's image. "The Chinese government will embarrass itself if it so blatantly violates the law again," Wang said.

If that should happen, activists say, Gao could again face torture. He has previously described abuses that included electric shocks to his genitals, cigarettes held to his eyes, and severe beatings.

"While in detention Gao faced some of the most unspeakable forms of torture," Amnesty International researcher William Nee said. "His tormentors have not been held to account. So we're not confident that he wouldn't face further torture or ill treatment in extralegal detention."