By Chris Buckley and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has sent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng back to jail, state news agency Xinhua reported on Friday, ending his probation in what was the first official account of his whereabouts in the last year.
Gao, however, appears never to have escaped confinement in the first place.
A combative rights advocate who tackled many causes anathema to the ruling Communist Party, Gao was sentenced to three years' jail in 2006 for "inciting subversion of state power," a charge often used to punish critics of one-party rule.
Gao was given five years' probation, formally sparing him from serving the prison sentence. But his family was under constant surveillance, and Gao was detained on and off over that period.
He was taken from a relative's home in Shaanxi province in northern China in February 2009 -- his family claims by security officers -- and had been missing since early last year, when he resurfaced briefly and made sporadic contact with friends and foreign reporters in April 2010.
Xinhua, in a brief story that appeared only in English, said a Beijing court "withdrew probation" on Gao and sent him back to jail.
"He had seriously violated probation rules a number of times, which led to the court decision to withdraw the probation," Xinhua cited a court statement as saying.
"He would serve his term in prison," referring to the three-year sentence, the report added.
Xinhua said that the court had "put him back in jail."
Gao's older brother, Gao Zhiyi, told Reuters he had not been told about the court's decision, despite his repeated appeals to police for any word of his brother's whereabouts.
"That's the first I've heard about this. They didn't tell us anything about a hearing or decision," Gao Zhiyi said by telephone from his home in Shaanxi province.
"This is a shock. Since he was taken away last year, we haven't heard anything about where he is or whether he's healthy," he added.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the news did not allay any fears about the lawyer's well-being.
"This seems to be further proof of the politically motivated persecution against him. He has had a long history of abuses at the hands of authorities," he said.
Gao Zhisheng's wife, Geng He, and children have fled to the United States where members of Congress have pressed his case.
The United Nations working group on arbitrary detention said in March that Gao was being detained in violation of international law, and that the Chinese government should "provide for reparation of the harm caused" to Gao, who had claimed he was tortured in detention.
This is "a continuation of his detention and depravation of freedom. It's essentially preventing him from talking and what happened," Bequelin said.
"We'd like to know that the prosecution or the authorities investigated the very serious allegations that he has made about torture and disappearances."
Starting in February, China has mounted a crackdown on potential political challengers to the ruling Communist Party, fearing that anti-authoritarian uprisings in Arab countries could inspire protests against one-party rule.
Many rights lawyers were detained, and most of those who have since been released have refrained from speaking out or renewing high-profile advocacy, fearing fresh bouts of detention.
CNN said on Friday British actor Christian Bale was roughed up by Chinese security guards as he attempted to visit a blind legal activist whose detention has sparked a domestic and international outcry.
Bale, who plays crime-fighting superhero Batman, and a camera crew from CNN were jostled by men in plainclothes in Dongshigu village in eastern Shandong province, where activist Chen Guangcheng has been under house arrest for 15 months, according to a video released by CNN on its website.
(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)