As China celebrated its New Year, a Christian human rights lawyer who has been kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured faced the fifth anniversary of his disappearance on 4 February, 2009.
On that day, Gao Zhisheng, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for defending the persecuted, was snatched by a dozen police officers from his apartment. He has publicly accused the authorities of brutally torturing him behind bars.
Little more than a week ago, on 26 January, China sentenced another prominent human rights lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, to four years in prison. Christian lawyers have also come under surveillance.
More than a year has passed since Gao Zhisheng's family were allowed to contact him at the prison in Xinjiang, despite repeatedly begging for permission to see him. On his last visit, Gao's elder brother was forbidden from asking about conditions at the prison. He said he was worried about Gao's health and described him as emaciated, with a sore on his face.
"Release partners are worried that Gao's health will deteriorate if he remains in the custody of the Chinese Government," said Colin King, the UK director of Release International, which serves the persecuted church. Release is urging China to set him free and allow him to return to his family.
49-year-old Gao Zhisheng has vigorously defended the rights of persecuted Christians, religious minorities and the poor. The authorities shut down his Beijing law firm after he wrote three open letters to China's leaders, calling for an end to the persecution of the Falun Gong. The authorities revoked his licence and found Gao guilty of 'inciting to subvert the state power'. The lawyer later described in detail how he had been tortured under interrogation, including the insertion of a toothpick into his genitals.
On 4 February, 2009, he was again arrested at his home in front of his family and taken away.
At the end of 2011 he was sent to Shaya Prison in Xinjiang to serve out an earlier three-year sentence. There has been no news of Gao Zhisheng for more than ayear.
His family have fled to the United States for their own safety. His wife, Geng He, recently described her own ordeal to the US Congress: "The police have stayed at my home. They monitored me and my children and didn't let my daughter attend schools, bringing great mental and emotional trauma. We finally succeeded in escaping from China. Their deeds will forever be etched in our memory."
On 26 January, a Chinese court sentenced another prominent human rights lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, to four years in prison. Xu, who has campaigned against corruption, was found guilty of public order offences. Other Christian lawyers have also come under surveillance and intimidation," said Colin King of Release International.
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.
For more information see: http://www.releaseinternational.org