In China, human rights lawyer leaves prison, but has no freedom

Family of human rights lawyer wants China to let him travel to U.S. for treatment

It was the phone call that 11-year-old Peter Gao of Sunnyvale had been awaiting for years: The chance to reconnect with his dad and tell him about geography, science and other subjects he had been studying in school across the ocean. Most of all, he wanted to converse in his native tongue with his father, an outspoken Chinese human rights lawyer imprisoned in China on subversion charges.

"I had been telling him, when you get to talk to dad, you can work on your Chinese together," said Peter's mother, Geng He, who found asylum in the U.S. with her son and daughter five years ago.

Finally, in early August, Gao Zhisheng was released, and father and son were at long last able to hear each other's voices. The discussion, though, turned out to be very one-sided.

"My son was talking nonstop, but my husband wasn't saying very much," said Geng, who's not sure whether Gao, 50, was in too much pain to converse or simply was having trouble remembering how.

During more than 2 1/2 years in prison, and in unofficial detention for many months before that, Gao was kept in a room without sunlight and guards were told not to speak to him, Geng said. He lost about 50 pounds and developed dental problems.

But how to convey that to a now very Americanized child? Said Geng: "When Peter got off the phone, he told me: 'Dad's Mandarin is not very good.'"

Since fleeing with the children to Thailand in 2009 and eventually arriving in the United States, Geng has built a new life in the Bay Area as a clerical worker at a computer company. Peter is now in middle school and daughter Grace is in college.

Geng has received financial help from friends and moral support from her church, but many neighbors and acquaintances know nothing about her family's situation. "Most people just think I'm one of those regular Chinese immigrants," she said.

For years, though, Geng has waged a tireless campaign to bring the family together again.

During Gao's imprisonment, she flew repeatedly to Washington, testifying before congressional panels in the hope that lawmakers, and ultimately President Obama, would put pressure on Chinese authorities to free her husband. But he received no early reprieve.

She also wrote newspaper op-eds and took to Twitter. This week, she is back in the nation's capital, speaking at the National Press Club and meeting with elected officials.

Having served his full sentence, Gao is now under virtual house arrest at the home of Geng's sister in Urumqi, the capital of China's far western Xinjiang province. Like others convicted of inciting subversion, Gao is subject to a one-year supplemental sentence barring him from giving interviews or publishing anything, inside or outside China, that might "damage the reputation or interests of the state."

He must receive approval to travel outside Urumqi and in effect has no freedom of association, speech or demonstration.

"Police told him he could not go to Beijing," said Geng, who now speaks to him by phone a few times a week and is desperate to get him proper medical attention, which she believes is available only in the Chinese capital or abroad. "They took away his ID card so he can't buy a plane ticket. And my sister is under severe pressure."

China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to a query about whether Gao would be allowed to leave China for medical treatment.

A day after his release, an editorial in the state-owned Global Times newspaper called Gao a "radical activist."

"People like Gao have become a lever used by the West when it plays political games with China," the piece continued. "Gao had better wise up after he rejoins society. Being a so-called human rights star in the West doesn't give him immunity from China's rule of law. As for other dissidents, they should stop being that simple and naive, laying their hopes on the West."

Those who have tried to help Gao or contact him have been warned off. Li Xiongbing, an attorney who tried to launch an appeal of the case in 2012, was told he could not go to Urumqi after Gao's prison release.

"There was no reason given," said Li. "When they want to restrict individual citizens, they don't need to cite any legal procedures."

Asked whether authorities made any specific threats, Li said no, but he's aware of the kind of repercussions Gao faced when Chinese officials became disenchanted with his work.

The self-taught Gao passed the bar exam in 1995. In 2001, he was named one of the top 10 lawyers in China by the Ministry of Justice's Legal Daily.

He took on medical malpractice and land confiscation cases, which meant challenging the government. Over time, he grew bolder, representing underground churches and members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, who said they were tortured for participating in the banned sect, which China has branded an "evil cult."

Eventually, Gao's practice was shut down. Security officers moved in next door to monitor the family. In 2006, he was convicted of inciting subversion, and while in custody, he said, he was subjected to electric shock and other forms of torture, allegations Chinese authorities have denied.

In 2011, with his family in California, he was arrested again and ordered to serve out the remaining two years and eight months of his original five-year sentence.

Gao in recent days has been able to have a dental check in Urumqi, but according to Geng, the dentist said the city lacks the proper equipment to deal with his problems. Asked whether Gao also needs mental health care, Geng said, "If we can't even get his teeth fixed, a psychologist seems like a luxury."

Geng, her legal advocates and rights groups are now calling on the Chinese government to allow Gao travel to the U.S. for medical treatment. But with U.S.-Sino relations under severe strain and a November meeting between Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping looming, it's unclear whether Washington is willing to press such a highly sensitive subject with Beijing.

"We hope the State Department and White House will take action. Without direct White House involvement … there's just no way Gao will be allowed to come to the United States," said Jared Genser, Geng's pro bono attorney and founder of the nonprofit Freedom Now.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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