Thu, Dec 15, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Human rights lawyer feels the heat

TARGET Considered almost a saint by his clients, Gao Zhisheng faces daily harassment for defending people labeled as ``trouble-makers'' by China's government

AFP , BEIJING

This file photo dated Nov. 2 shows Gao Zhisheng, head of the Zhisheng Legal Office, during an interview at his Beijing office.

PHOTO: AFP

Lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) is a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities, but to his clients, including underground Christians, cyber-dissidents, factory workers and even lawyers who are locked up for getting involved in bitter rights disputes, he is almost a saintly figure.

Without Gao, who dares to handle politically sensitive cases that few Chinese lawyers will take on, they would be at a loss.

But now Gao too is feeling the squeeze. The outspoken lawyer's home and his office are heavily guarded around the clock by up to 20 state security agents. Harassment is a daily occurrence, which even extends to Gao's 12-year-old daughter. Everyday as she goes to school, she too is followed.

Gao's phones have long been tapped, and his car was chased so closely by secret police when he was on his way to meet visiting UN torture investigator Manfred Nowak last month that it was struck several times.

And his latest crime?

Long watched by authorities over his defense of people they consider "trouble-makers," the maverick lawyer wrote an open letter to the top Chinese leadership in October, condemning China's brutal six-year crackdown on the spiritual sect Falun Gong as "barbaric."

Falun Gong, banned by China as an "evil cult" in 1999, reportedly has millions of followers throughout the country and is seen by the government as the biggest threat to stability since the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

In the eyes of the authorities, Gao's high-profile defense of the group is equivalent to declaring a war, putting himself in the spotlight as an enemy of the state.

As a result, Beijing's justice bureau ordered him early last month to close his practice for one year, ostensibly because his firm had not registered its new address. Some 20 lawyers at his practice were also banned from practicing.

Officials have threatened that his personal freedom "would likely be restricted" if he kept on practicing, he says he has been told.

Under the Chinese Communist rule, where economic freedoms do not come with civil liberty, many wonder why Gao considers it worthwhile to pay such a heavy price to stand up to the government, often at little or no fees to his clients.

"I don't have many highbrow ideals, it is just my character," Gao says from his spartan office, shortly before surveillance on him was tightened.

Gao says he feels a strong sense of moral obligation to be a voice for the underprivileged, the oppressed and outspoken activists who find themselves on the wrong side of the regime.

One reason for his boldness and his sympathy, Gao says, is his humble and tough upbringing as a farmer's son in the impoverished countryside in Shaanxi Province.

"Throughout Chinese history, Chinese peasants never had anything, so they have no fear and no greed," Gao says in his typically strident voice. "Chinese peasants detest evil, I'm like that as well."

His father died when he was 11 and, as he was one of seven children, his mother could only afford to put him through school until the age of 15 with borrowed money.

Gao did a variety of jobs including becoming a lumberjack and a miner, before joining the army and being posted to western China's remote Xinjiang region.

After his stint in the army, he got married and stayed in Xinjiang for three years working as a hawker in a market. When he was selling vegetables one day, his twist of fate came.

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