Hope against hope for Gao Zhisheng's freedom

Keane Shum says experience with the Chinese justice system teaches that the illegal detention of Gao Zhisheng will continue into the new year. Nevertheless, it would be nice to be proved wrong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 3:25am

If you look at a satellite photo of Xinjiang, there is a large patch in the southwest, about one-third the size of the province, that looks like it has been erased from the map. It looks like a giant smudge, blanking out an entire region of western China the size of Germany. The Taklamakan Desert is 337,000 square kilometres of sand that shifts from just south of Urumqi to just east of Kashgar. Its name comes from the Arabic, meaning place of abandonment, or ruins.

I once took the train from Urumqi to Kashgar that grinds along the northern edge of the Taklamakan, and for hours all you can see is nothing. In the middle of the journey, you can get off in Aksu prefecture, once the largest town along the route from Delhi to Beijing, with bazaars and inns and other dusty fixtures of Silk Road outposts. Today it is just another small Chinese city, with tall concrete hotels and lobby KTV lounges.

Three hundred kilometres west of Aksu is Shaya county, closer to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan than to any other Chinese province. There is a prison in Shaya, post code 842208, though no one knows how many prisoners it holds, or why they are there. And, in this prison, Gao Zhisheng sits in a cell, waiting.

At least we know that much. In January, Gao's brother and father-in-law were allowed a prison visit with Gao, the first time in nine months that anyone had heard anything about the self-taught human rights litigator once heralded by the Ministry of Justice as one of China's 10 best lawyers, before he was disbarred for defending persecuted religious groups and other vulnerable citizens. This time last year, Gao had not been heard from for nearly two years, since his daughter's 16th birthday. Before that, he had been missing for another year, since the day he was spirited away from his family home in Shaanxi on February 4, 2009.

So it goes for Gao and his family, now in exile in the United States. An appearance every one or two years is all the confirmation they have that he is even alive. This time of the year, every year, Gao's family waits for news. It is not unlike the way we all will wait for our loved ones to visit us this week, only they never turn up.

Three years ago, I and several lawyers, including lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan, submitted a petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, on Gao's behalf. The working group ruled in our favour, calling for Gao's immediate release after finding that the central government had violated international law. We had also pointed out that the central government was violating its own domestic laws, including articles 35, 36, 37, 41, and 125 of the Chinese constitution.

That was in November 2010. I am not optimistic. I have no illusions that the unenforceable opinion of five foreign human rights experts carries any ounce of influence in Beijing. There are probably less than a handful of people in the central government who know there even is a Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, at least one that is meant to prevent such things from happening. And so I have little doubt that, a year from now, Gao's children will ring in the Year of the Horse just as they have the Years of the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit and the Dragon, and now the Snake: without their father.

But I am desperate to be proved wrong. New years are meant to be a time of hope, the promise of spring and the belief, even in smog-smothered Beijing, that when we move, we move forward. In recent months, Xi Jinping has called the constitution "the legal weapon for people to defend their own rights", and the Southern Weekly editors' censored dreams of constitutionalism have been retweeted far beyond the reach of the Great Firewall. I assume this to be the usual - and usually brief - flowering of a new administration, but perhaps change is coming, slowly.

In the meantime, there may not be a lot that ordinary people can do for Gao. But we can do a little: we can at least make him feel a little less isolated, a little more connected to the world he is shut out from.

Over Christmas, the activist Hu Jia, drawing on his own years in prison for subversion, urged supporters to send cards to post box 15-16 at Gao's prison in Shaya county. "Even if he never gets them," said Gao's wife, Geng He , "it will make the prison guards respect him more." This new year, alone in a jail cell on the edges of the Taklamakan Desert, respect may be the only thing Gao Zhisheng can wish for.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong