Fri, Apr 09, 2010 - Page 4 News List

Crusading lawyer gives up activism

‘ULTIMATE CHOICE’Saying his backers would be disheartened by his decision, Gao Zhisheng asked for understanding as he seeks to be reunited with his family


A crusading Chinese rights lawyer whose disappearance more than a year ago caused an international outcry said on Wednesday that he was abandoning his once prominent role as a government critic in hopes he would be allowed to reunite with his family.

In an exclusive interview, his first since he resurfaced two weeks ago, Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) said he did not wish to discuss his disappearance and whether he had been held and mistreated by the authorities. He appeared thinner and more subdued than the stocky, pugnacious civil rights defender of the past, though he said his health was fine.

Nevertheless, Gao said, the ordeal had taken a toll on him and his wife and two children, who secretly fled China early last year to escape relentless harassment by police.

“I don’t have the capacity to persevere. On the one hand, it’s my past experiences. It’s also that these experiences greatly hurt my loved ones. This ultimate choice of mine, after a process of deep and careful thought, is to seek the goal of peace and calm,” Gao, sitting straight-backed, said at a tea house near his apartment in northern Beijing.

His eyes brimmed with tears several times when he discussed his family, especially when he described seeing their shoes when he returned home for the first time on Tuesday.

“I completely lost control of my emotions, because to me these are the three dearest people in the world and now, we’re like a kite with a broken string,” he said.

Among the most dauntless of a group of human rights lawyers, Gao was a thorn in the authoritarian government’s side for much of the past decade. He advocated constitutional reform and took on sensitive cases involving evangelical Christians and members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group. He was jailed, tortured and watched by police until he went missing 14 months ago. Vague statements from the government as to his whereabouts drew protests by international human rights groups, the US and British governments and the UN’s torture investigator.

The more than hour-long meeting seemed partly intended to dispel concerns over the 44-year-old Gao’s health and state of mind since he disappeared in February last year. He showed flashes of his previously defiant self, mixing praise for the government’s building of the economy while calling for democracy.

However, his desire not to talk about the past and his often roundabout answers raised questions about the current conditions of his freedom and whether he is still under police surveillance.

Gao said his meeting with the reporter was “a chat,” not an interview — which is forbidden under terms of a 2006 parole for a subversion conviction. He hinted at a compromise with authorities, a relinquishing of his past activism in exchange for contact with his family and perhaps one day a reunion.

“You know that past life of mine was abnormal, and I need to give up that former life. I hope I can become part of the peaceful life of the big family,” Gao said.

He later added: “You know the main basis for choosing to give up is for the sake of family feelings. I hope I can reunite with them. My children need me by their side growing up.”

Gao’s sudden resurfacing on March 18 added to the confusion about him. For a few days, he spoke with friends, family and the media by mobile phone, saying he was at Mount Wutai, a well-known Buddhist retreat, and wanted to be left alone. That explanation was so out of character for the normally garrulous Gao that it brought speculation from friends and supporters that he was being pressured by the authorities.

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