Prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) has been sent back to prison after a court ruled he had violated the terms of his probation, Xinhua news agency said on Friday.
The move was criticized by the US who urged China to immediately release Gao and to clarify his whereabouts, which have been unknown for months.
Gao — who defended some of China’s most vulnerable people including Christians and coal miners — was arrested in February 2009 and has been held incommunicado by the authorities.
The Beijing court sent him back to jail for three years after ruling he had “seriously violated probation rules a number of times,” the report said on Friday — less than a week before his probation was due to expire.
Calls to the court went unanswered.
He briefly reappeared in March last year when he was apparently released by police, speaking with a few friends and colleagues, many of whom reported that he continued to be tailed by authorities and was in ill health.
A month later, he disappeared again and has not been heard from since.
China’s foreign ministry has repeatedly denied any knowledge of Gao’s whereabouts despite persistent questioning by journalists.
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the US was “deeply disappointed” by the announcement that he had been sent back to prison just as his five-year suspended sentence was set to expire next week.
“We are especially concerned about Gao’s welfare and whereabouts, including reports that his family has been unable to communicate with him,” Nuland said. “And we reiterate our calls for the Chinese government to immediately release Gao from custody and clarify his whereabouts.”
Human rights activists said the court’s decision showed Beijing was determined to prevent Gao speaking publicly about his time in detention — if, in fact, he was still alive.
Nicolas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said: “There’s nothing there [in the Xinhua report] that tells you he is alive and well.”
“At the very last minute ... they decided they couldn’t let the world see him or hear him and decided to take him away for another three years,” he said.
Earlier this year a UN human rights agency called on Beijing to free Gao, who has previously been touted as a possible Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The EU has also raised Gao’s case with Chinese authorities and this latest development is likely to spark a fresh protest.
Amnesty International called the Beijing court ruling against Gao “truly shocking” and demanded that he be freed immediately, saying that he and his family have “suffered enough.”
“The authorities’ belated attempt to cast a veneer of legality over their treatment of Gao Zhisheng is truly shameful,” Catherine Baber, the London-based rights group’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.
“We urge the international community to continue to press the Chinese government for Gao’s release. The international community must not let up in their condemnation of this travesty of justice,” she said.
Gao’s troubles began more than five years ago, when he renounced his Chinese Communist Party membership and openly called for an end to a crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.
In December 2006, he was convicted of subversion and given a suspended sentence of three years in prison, immediately placed under house arrest and put on probation for five years.