Family members of jailed prominent lawyer Gao Zhisheng said Wednesday that Chinese authorities have allowed them to visit him in prison, confirming for the first time since he disappeared nearly two years ago that he is alive and in good health.
Gao's brother Gao Zhiyi told The Associated Press that he has seen his brother, but added it was "not convenient" to say more.
The dissident's wife, Geng He, said her father and Gao's brother saw him for half an hour on Saturday in an emotional reunion in a remote prison in Xinjiang. She expressed relief at proof her husband is alive and relatively well.
Geng, who now lives in California, says she was told Gao appeared paler than the last time his brother saw him two years ago but seemed otherwise the same.
"Anyway, this is the situation that I am in," Geng quoted Gao Zhisheng as telling his brother. "You should all take care of yourselves, help Geng He raise the children well."
Gao has been a galvanizing figure for the rights movement, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters. Convicted in 2006 of subversion and sentenced to three years, he was released on probation before being taken away by security agents in 2009 in the first of his forced disappearances that set off an international outcry.
The whereabouts of Gao, who earlier said he had been kidnapped and tortured by Chinese authorities, had been unknown for 20 months until state media reported in December that he was being sent back to prison for three years for violating his probation.
During an interview with the AP in 2010 when he briefly resurfaced, Gao described being hooded and beaten by security and said he worried about being taken away by police again. He disappeared again a few weeks later.
In December, the government said it was moving Gao to prison, the first time it had acknowledged holding him. Yet, his condition was not known and speculation about his health spiked again after authorities refused to let his brother visit him in prison.
"The fact that he's alive and that his family has seen him is a huge step forward given the fears we've all had," said Jared Genser, president of the Washington-based advocacy group Freedom Now and an adviser to Geng He.
With Gao confirmed alive, Genser said the next step is to rally foreign governments and U.N. groups to persuade the Chinese government to release him and allow him to be reunited with this family. "Now is the time to put pressure on the Chinese government to adhere to the rule of law," Genser said in Beijing.
Geng said the news of the visit brought her relief. "I slept well for the first time that night," she said.
"But in the morning as soon as I got up, I was aware that the road ahead of me remains long. Gao Zhisheng's ordeal has not ended," she said. "I must keep calling for his release until the day he is free and we can be reunited."
Other prominent Chinese who are being held incommunicado include poet Liu Xia, who is the wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who documented forced abortions and other abuses.
Liu Xia is believed to be effectively under house arrest without phone or Internet access and is prohibited from seeing all but a few family members. Chen was released from jail in 2010, but authorities have turned his eastern Chinese village into a no-go zone where activists, foreign diplomats and reporters have been turned back and threatened.
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.
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