A group of New York-based lawyers and legal scholars has joined other alarmed observers of China in attempting to intercede for Gao Zhisheng, a well-known Chinese human rights lawyer who disappeared after he reportedly was forcibly removed from his home by police on Feb. 4.
The Committee to Support Lawyers in China wrote to Minister of Justice Wu Aiying last month to “respectfully ask that you take all necessary steps to investigate Mr. Gao’s disappearance and ensure his personal safety and other rights as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. As Mr. Gao appears to have been detained outside of formal legal proceedings and without legal cause, we also urge you to release him without delay.” (See Letter.)
The expression of support by American lawyers for a beleaguered colleague overseas is reminiscent of the New York lawyers’ protests on behalf of Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was removed from office and placed under house arrest by former President Pervez Musharraf.
The New York committee to support Chinese lawyers is a relatively new organization housed at Fordham University School of Law’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice. It is an offshoot of the center’s Rules of Law in Asia Program.
Gao, 44, known for speaking out about official corruption and police abuse, raised the ire of Chinese authorities with his efforts to defend religious freedom and other causes. Once lauded by the justice ministry as one of the country’s 10 best lawyers, his license to practice was taken away and his law firm closed down in 2005 because of his condemnation through letters, essays and interviews of police treatment of Falun Gong members, Christians and others.
In 2006, he was detained and received a three-year prison sentence, which was suspended for five years, for “inciting subversion.” After a two-month detention in 2007, he described treatment amounting to torture. His family fled China in January due to what they said was constant police surveillance and harassment.
In light of Gao’s assertions that he had been abused, the New York committee wrote the Chinese justice minister that “we fear for [Gao’s] personal safety.”
It argued that Gao’s detention and harassment were inconsistent with United Nations standards on the rule of lawyers, which obligate governments to ensure that lawyers are free to perform their professional functions without “intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” and that lawyers should not be penalized “for any actions taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”