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Authorities refuse to register human rights lawyer as missing person

(RSF/IFEX) - 26 October 2010 - Reporters Without Borders is deeply concerned by the lack of transparency in the case of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, one of the first "barefoot lawyers," who has been missing again since April. The press freedom organization calls on the Chinese authorities to quickly produce evidence that he is still alive. It also urges the international community to press the authorities to shed light on the matter without delay.

His brother, Gao Zhiyi, went to Beijing last week to report his disappearance again to the police and request information.

"I went to see the Beijing authorities in the Chaoyang district last week with two friends of my brother's, Teng Biao and Li Heping [both well-known human rights lawyers]," he said. "The police told us they knew nothing about my brother's situation. The authorities then said they were not involved in the matter and did not know where he was. I have no idea where my brother could be."

The authorities maintain that they have no information about Gao Zhisheng and have refused to register him as a missing person. The police said he "disappeared" and "reappeared" already and that his case was not a source of concern.

Gao Zhisheng has had difficulties with the authorities since 2005, when he refused to renew his Communist Party membership. Harassment of Gao and his family increased in 2007 after he wrote a letter (published in 2009) about the torture to which he had been subjected.

Public Security Department officers arrested him at his home in Shaanxi on 4 February 2009. Thereafter, his family received no news of him until the following September, when the police told them he had "disappeared." Amid mounting international pressure, he "reappeared" in March 2010, apparently released by the police after more than a year in detention. He gave several interviews but, after being harassed by the police, he disappeared again less than a month later.

Gao has defended dispossessed landowners and members of religious minorities, including Christians, who have been harassed by the authorities. He and other activists such as Hu Jia staged a "rotating hunger strike for human rights" in 2006. U.S. congressmen nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. His wife and two children fled China on 11 March 2009 and are now living in exile in the United States.

Twenty-nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives led by James McGovern and Frank Wolf wrote to President Barack Obama on 6 October urging him to press Chinese President Hu Jintao to release Gao and another emblematic prisoner of conscience, Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two days later. Obama is due to meet his Chinese counterpart at a G20 summit on 11-12 November in Seoul.

China is ranked 171st out of 178 countries in the world press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders released earlier this month. A total of 31 journalists and 74 netizens are currently held in Chinese prisons.

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