Mainland human rights lawyers we have met can only envy how lawyers in Hong Kong and in democratic countries are able to defend their clients in court without facing revenge by the government. The most famous Chinese human rights lawyer is Gao Zhisheng. His traumatic experience and prolonged enforced disappearance have been widely reported in the international media over the past few years, although the level of attention is not comparable to that on Nobel Peace Prize laureate and imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo, and the iconic Beijing artist Ai Weiwei.
Some people who are thrilled by China's growing economic influence may not believe that human rights defenders like Gao could ever be tortured. Some may argue that only those who are too naive and unskillful in campaigning for human rights would get into trouble. They refuse to believe how China, the second-largest economy in the world, could treat its people in barbaric ways like the authoritarian regime in Burma.
We've heard that some human rights lawyers - in particular, Gao - were tortured by internal security officers or thugs hired by the public security authorities in an attempt to silence them. Gao, named by a magazine run by the mainland judicial authorities as one of the 10 top lawyers in China in 2001, described his experience to the Associated Press in April last year, when he resurfaced after being taken away in February 2009. In the interview, Gao said he was stripped and beaten repeatedly for two days by the people guarding him. He was hooded and tied up for more than 16 hours on several occasions. The people guarding him threatened to kill him and dump his body in the river.
Gao was convicted in 2006 for 'inciting subversion of state power'. His three-year imprisonment, suspended for five years, should have expired on August 12. But, after reappearing in late March last year, he went missing again a month later and is still in detention. This is complete lawlessness.
Gao's wife Geng He, their daughter Geng Ge and son Gao Tianyu, fled the country in early 2009, arriving in the United States in March. They are worried about his safety and have tried to obtain information about him from his sister and brothers on the mainland, but to no avail.
Gao became a controversial icon among Chinese human rights lawyers because of his participation in human rights campaigns, such as initiating hunger strikes to support other human rights defenders. Although Gao is a Christian, he is associated with Falun Gong, which is banned on the mainland, because he wrote open letters in 2005 to leaders urging the government to stop persecuting Falun Gong practitioners. It is generally believed that his torture and disappearance were related to his support for the group. Gao's name has become so sensitive that only a few mainland lawyers would mention him to foreigners or Hong Kong people like us who are concerned about his case, but the message they conveyed was that they had no information about him.
Some human rights lawyers told us Gao's experience seemed to indicate the extent to which Beijing would tolerate human rights lawyers taking part in the rights movement and criticising the government. Since an anonymous online call for a Chinese so-called jasmine revolution in February, a number of human rights lawyers, including Li Fangping, Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian, Teng Biao, Li Tiantian, Tang Jingling and Liu Shihui, had been detained for periods ranging from a few days to several months.
Most of the released lawyers were reluctant to disclose what had happened during their detention. We suspect they were subjected to ill-treatment and threatened with torture. The lawyers choose to maintain a low profile by occasionally writing messages on their microblogs but would not give interviews to the foreign media.
Beijing lawyer Ni Yulan , who became crippled after a beating at a detention centre in Beijing in 2002, was taken away in early April and has been charged with 'creating social disorder' and 'fraud'. A victim of illegal land eviction, she provided legal support to many petitioners who also lost their homes.
We understand that their experiences during their detention had a chilling effect on them. These lawyers have been intimidated into silence, even though they have not stopped taking an interest in human rights issues. Some even continue to handle human rights cases.
What the Chinese government has done is against the spirit of the rule of law and China's commitment in complying with the international human rights conventions it has signed. We salute the human rights lawyers and call on Hong Kong people and the international community to support them.
Emily Lau is vice-chairwoman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, based in Hong Kong, and an elected legislator in Hong Kong