In the early morning hours of February 4, 2009, some 10 police officers dragged Gao Zhisheng from his family home in Shaanxi province and quickly disappeared into the darkness. The police gave no reason for the abduction of the prominent human rights activist, and Gao has not been seen or heard from since that day. In September the police told his brother that Gao had gone missing while on a walk. On January 20 this year, a Western journalist quoted an unidentified security officer as saying Gao was alive and in custody. The following day, Ma Zhaoxu , a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, smugly said that judicial authorities had decided Gao's case and that he was 'where he should be'. On February 2, Ma changed his story. 'Honestly speaking, I don't know where he is. China has 1.3 billion people and I can't know all of their whereabouts.' Then, on February 14, the Chinese embassy in Washington told a human rights group that Gao was 'working' in Urumqi , and had been in touch with his wife, Geng He - a claim she has denied. 'For a very long time I have not heard from him, and I do not know where he is now,' she said in a statement released by the New York-based group Human Rights in China. A blogger even posted photos of someone alleged to be Gao, which some believed might have been altered, and wrote that he was working in a company in Urumqi. The report contained many factual errors. This flurry of vague statements would be amusing were it not for the fact that the government's unwillingness to give a concrete answer may well mean that Gao, who was brutally tortured in 2007, may have been subjected to such severe psychological or physical abuse that he can't be shown in public. Some fear even worse. A Western human rights scholar, who has been following the case closely, says that while there's no evidence, it's possible that Gao has been hurt so badly that they 'can't display him because it's too visible what they did to him'. Jerome Cohen, co-director of New York University's US-Asia Law Institute, and a leading expert on the Chinese legal system, speculates that if this is the case, that the government may be 'playing for recovery time'. 'No one wants to take responsibility for whatever happened, so the leaders keep hoping we will forget and the case will go away,' he says. The uncertainty has been agony for his family. The government's lack of response has baffled legal experts. In most other high-level sensitive political cases, the Chinese government has at least gone through the motions of acting in accordance with the law. In Gao's case, it has not even bothered to pretend. Since his release on a suspended sentence in 2006, said a Western human rights scholar, 'everything has been illegal'. 'They could have used the fig leaf of parole violation or something similar to rationalise his most recent detention,' Cohen says. 'But then they would have had to identify the location of his prison and perhaps permit occasional visits from family.' Despite the flippant remarks by Ma Zhaoxu, Gao Zhisheng is not just one of the mainland's 1.3 billion people. He is one of its most prominent human rights lawyers, once recognised by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland's top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work, and a man who was under 24-hour police surveillance for years. 'He's not just an ordinary Chinese citizen,' says John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks clemency for political prisoners. 'He was serving a suspended sentence under police surveillance. So how can you say you don't know where is?' And while many other human rights lawyers have been kidnapped and beaten, the treatment of Gao goes far beyond what others have experienced. 'Gao is a special case in the degree of harshness he has suffered the torture, and the way they answer questions about where he is,' says the Western human rights scholar, who did not want to be named. He says that the five-year suspension of the prison sentence given to Gao in December 2006 may have actually been a curse in disguise. 'In a way taking him out of the criminal process gave them more options to mistreat and torture him,' he says. The reason the government is so angry, say people who know Gao, is that he took up particularly sensitive cases, such as religious persecution and the abuse of dissidents, which provoked the Communist Party leadership. Gao, a former coal miner, soldier, self-trained lawyer, Christian and party member, got into trouble in 2004 after looking into the persecution of members of the Falun Gong, a spiritual group outlawed by the government. Gao was especially affected after he discovered the incredible brutality that was being used against the Falun Gong, which led him to renounce his membership in the Communist Party. He was sentenced to prison in 2006 for 'inciting subversion' after writing a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , accusing the government of persecuting and torturing Falun Gong practitioners. Gao lost his licence to practise law and his law firm was shut down. He was given a suspended sentence in December that same year, after which things got worse for the whole family. Gao, his wife Geng He, daughter Geng Ge and younger son Gao Tianyu, were placed under constant surveillance by security apparatus. Their movements were restricted and they suffered repeated abuse with even Gao's wife and daughter, who was just 12 at the time, being roughed up by the police. For a period, police even moved into their apartment. In September 2007, Human Rights in China, a New York-based human rights organisation, published his personal account of his ordeal. The article, titled 'Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia', detailed horrible beatings, electric shocks to his genitals, toothpicks being stuck in his penis and having lit cigarettes held up to his eyes for extended periods, causing temporary blindness. His torturers taunted him by saying that these were some of the same tactics used against the Falun Gong. In the article Gao wrote: 'On the twelfth of the 13 days of my kidnapping, when I could again partially open my eyes, I saw my body was in a horrifying condition. Not a single square centimetre of my skin was normal. It was bruised and damaged over every part.' Acquaintances described Gao as appearing to be 'a broken man', both physically and spiritually, after the beatings. The torture was a major blow to the family. Geng He was particularly worried about Geng Ge, their 16-year-old daughter. The teenager first got into trouble four years earlier when she evaded police to make a phone call to Hu Jia , a human rights activist, who recorded the teenage girl's tearful story of the abuse of her father, and put it on the internet. Police were enraged when they found out and from that point on, Geng Ge was escorted to and from school every day in a police car. On at least one occasion, mainland police knocked her to the ground and pulled her hair after she refused to get into a police car. Geng He said in an interview with this reporter last year that the police spread nasty rumours about the young girl at her school, telling classmates not to have any contact with her. The final blow came in 2008, when the school told the girl she could no longer attend classes - apparently the police presence had become too onerous for the police, other students and the high school. After that, Geng Ge got very depressed and attempted suicide several times, Geng He said. Pushed to the limits, Geng He realised she had to do something. On January 9 last year, she and her two children donned disguises, slipped past their police guards and made their way to the Beijing train station, where they boarded a train for the south. Bob Fu, the founder of ChinaAid, a Christian organisation based in the United States that monitors the treatment of Christians on the mainland, described the family's escape as a 'very dangerous mission'. The family took a train to Yunnan province in the southwest, from where they were guided across the border to a third country, travelling by foot, car, motorcycle and boat at night to escape notice. Geng said she considered giving up several times. The hardest time, she said, was when she was separated from her children to avoid being noticed. She said her daughter needed constant comforting and that at one point her five-year-old son Tianyu was detained at a police checkpoint. The people guiding him won his release after a few hours of negotiation. The family reached Thailand seven days later. While waiting for the US government to grant political asylum, the mother and two children moved several times, stayed indoors, and did not speak Chinese to avoid being noticed by Chinese intelligence agents in Thailand. Geng said she was worried the entire time that they might be kidnapped by Chinese agents or arrested by the Thai police. On March 11, the family arrived in the United States. Gao was taken away less than a month later, and there is speculation that this may have been connected with the family's escape. 'I have no doubt that this kidnapping was the Chinese government's retaliation for our escape,' Geng said in a letter to the US Congress last April. 'In view of his horrific experiences in the past, I'm extremely worried about my husband's safety.' After reaching the United States, Geng said that the family left secretly while Gao was away, in an apparent attempt to distance him from the escape. She said that she'd left a note for him explaining she had to leave for the sake of their children. However, in her letter to the US Congress, Geng implied that he was at least aware of the plan, writing that the knowledge 'that my husband was prepared to be tortured for the sake of our escape is like a knife in my heart'. If it's correct that Gao knew or was involved, says the human rights scholar, this means that he was 'sacrificing what remained of his life and well-being to ensure that his family would be able to get out'. Gao's case has aroused international attention, from foreign governments, human rights organisations, lawyers and scholars. Richard Buangan, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Beijing, praised the human rights lawyer. 'Mr Gao has courageously taken on cases involving corruption, illegal property seizure and religious persecution,' he said. 'We believe such activities support China's efforts to institute the rule of law and should be encouraged, not punished.' Buangan said the US was concerned about Gao's condition, that the issue had been raised repeatedly in both Washington and Beijing, and that it had called on the Chinese government to make his welfare and whereabouts known, to release him, if he is in custody, and to ensure that his treatment meets international standards. The Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers, a group of prominent New York-based lawyers and legal scholars, wrote to Minister of Justice Wu Aiying last year saying it appeared that Gao was detained 'outside of formal legal proceedings and without legal cause', and urging the government to release him. Cohen says: 'Instead of continuing this sad charade, which holds the Chinese government up to ridicule and condemnation and intensifies the agony of Gao's wife and children, the [People's Republic of China] ought to come clean and answer. What is the PRC ashamed of?' He says Gao's case is 'as puzzling and distressing as any that has been exposed in China'. The central government has been stung by the international reaction, which may explain the string of vague official statements. Kamm of Dui Hua described the official response as 'a lot of scrambling to come up with a response to a very loud international request for information'. 'I'm very motivated to find out what's going on,' says Kamm, who believes 'speculation will run rife until there's some clarification'. What's worrying, experts say, is that Gao's detention, the abuse and the official stonewalling has likely been given the green light by the top echelons of the Communist Party. 'The continuing charade is surely approved near the highest level, perhaps by the Central Party Political-Legal Committee', the body that instructs all legal institutions, Cohen says, though this does not mean that the party approved whatever happened to Gao. In the meantime, his family and friends are aware that the continued failure to provide concrete details means he may have suffered the same torture he did in 2007 - treatment he told the human rights scholar that he was surprised to have survived. According to Gao, security agents warned him not to tell anyone about what had been done to him. 'Your death is sure if you share this with the outside world,' he quoted one of his torturers warning him. The human rights lawyer showed courage to defy the warning, publishing excruciating details of his torture at the hands of Chinese police soon after his release. Copies of the report were smuggled out of China and translated into English. 'He impressed me as ready for martyrdom, a fervent believer in both democracy and Christianity,' says Cohen, who adds that younger rights lawyers see him as a leader. In a telephone conversation with the human rights scholar in January last year, shortly before he disappeared, an unusually subdued-sounding Gao talked about his previous torture. 'The way he expressed himself, I felt he was expecting the same sort of thing to happen again,' the scholar said. 'Gao did not sound particularly fearful for himself, but he sounded anxious for his family,' he said. 'He made me feel he had sort of given up on himself, that he didn't have any hope for himself.' For his family, the suffering has not yet ended, despite their successful escape to safety in the US. In a brief telephone interview last week with Geng, who is now living in New York, she was so distraught by the latest government claims during the Lunar New Year holiday - the most important family holiday for Chinese people - that she would only say a few words. She vehemently denied the Chinese embassy claim that Gao had called the family. 'The Chinese government is lying,' she said. 'We've had no news from him.' 'This is the Lunar New Year and if he is in Urumqi, they should let him call his family,' said Geng, her soft-spoken voice rising. 'And if he's in Urumqi, why did they just tell the Dui Hua Foundation, and not his family?' It's been especially difficult for the two children. Worries for her father landed Geng Ge in hospital for two weeks in December. And, a family friend says, little Tianyu, who was very close to his father, is also suffering from the separation. In her letter to the US Congress last April, Geng wrote: 'My children ask me every day, 'Where's dad?''