The police stripped Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) bare and pummeled him with handguns in holsters. For two days and nights, they took turns beating him and did things he refused to describe. When all three officers tired, they bound his arms and legs with plastic bags and threw him to the floor until they caught their breath to resume the abuse.
“That degree of cruelty, there’s no way to recount it,” the civil rights lawyer said, his normally commanding voice quavering.
“For 48 hours my life hung by a thread,” he said.
The beatings were the worst he said he ever endured and the darkest point of 14 months, ending last March, during which Gao was secretly held by Chinese authorities. He described his ordeal to The Associated Press (AP) that April, but asked that his account not be made public unless he went missing again or made it to “someplace safe”’ like the US or Europe.
Two weeks later, he disappeared again. His family and friends say they have not heard from him in the more than eight months since.
Police agencies either declined to comment or said they did not know Gao’s whereabouts. The AP decided to publish his account given the length of his current disappearance.
Gao had been a galvanizing figure for the rights movement, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters, including members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. His disappearance in 2009 set off an international outcry that may have played a role in winning his brief release last year.
Among democracy and rights campaigners, Gao appears to have been singled out for frequent, harsh punishment beyond the slim protections of China’s laws.
“It seems to be that they are afraid of Gao in a way they aren’t of others,” said Maran Turner, the executive director of Freedom Now, a Washington-based group that advocates for political prisoners, Gao among them.
Gao’s wife, brother and friends fear for his safety. They hope publicizing his account will place renewed pressure on the government to disclose Gao’s whereabouts and refocus international attention diverted to Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the imprisoned dissident writer awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We’ve had no word of him all this time,” his wife, Geng He (耿和), said last week in a telephone interview from the San Francisco area, where she and their children live. “This could help us get some news of him and gain his freedom.”
Gao spoke to the AP in a nearly empty Beijing teahouse watched outside by plainclothes police. Weary-looking rather than his normally forceful self, he said that over those 14 months police had stashed him in hostels, farm houses, apartments and prisons in Beijing, his native province of Shaanxi and the far western region of Xinjiang, where he lived for many years.
Weeks of inactivity were punctuated by outbursts of brutality. He was hooded several times. His captors tied him up with belts, made him sit motionless for up to 16 hours and told him his children were having nervous breakdowns. They threatened to kill him and dump his body in a river.
“‘You must forget you’re human. You’re a beast,’” Gao said his police tormentors told him in September 2009.
Excessive even for China’s often abusive police, the treatment given to Gao highlights the authoritarian government’s willingness to breach its own laws to silence critics.