NS Christmas campaign: Show your support for Gao Zhisheng

The distinguished lawyer is at risk of torture.

For the past six years one of China’s most distinguished human rights advocate Gao Zhisheng has been a victim of China’s state system. Once regarded as "one of China's top ten lawyers", Gao is now disbarred, behind bars and at real risk of torture.  

His crime? He dared to criticise the government’s practices.

Gao had previously called on the Chinese government to stop religious persecution, including persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. He is currently imprisoned for allegedly violating the terms of a three-year suspended sentence given for false and trumped-up charges.

In February 2009, police arrested Gao. He was not charged with an offence. Nor did he appear before a judge following his arrest. Instead he disappeared from sight.

Fourteen months later in March 2010 Gao re-appeared in Beijing for two weeks.  

In a televised interview Gao gave during his brief reappearance, he told how he had been held in hostels, farm houses, apartments and prisons in various parts of China. He had been hooded, tied with belts and made to sit still for hours on end.  Adding psychological trauma to the mix, he was also told that his children had suffered nervous breakdowns.

That wasn’t the first time Gao had been tortured.
 
Since 2006, Gao Zhisheng has been repeatedly imprisoned, tortured and held under illegal house arrest. Members of his family have been routinely beaten, starved and intimidated. In October 2006 he was charged and found guilty of "inciting subversion".

In 2007, after criticising the human rights situation in China in an open letter to the US Congress, plain-clothed police came into his home, stripped him of his clothes and beat him unconscious. He was then taken and held incommunicado for nearly six weeks. Later Gao described how during that illegal detention, he was subjected to violent beatings, repeated electric shocks to his genitals, and lit cigarettes which were held close to his eyes over a prolonged period of time, leaving him partially blind for days afterwards.

In 2010 Gao Zhisheng disappeared for the second time. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, in December 2011, that state media reported that he had violated terms of his suspended sentence and was being sent to serve his sentence in prison. Throughout these months his family did not know where he was or even if he was still alive.

Gao Zhisheng is currently held in a remote prison in Xinjiang in the far west of China. This region has historically been used to hide away political prisoners.

Previous evidence has shown that Gao Zhisheng is at serious risk of being tortured while he’s in prison. Indeed, human rights lawyers in China regularly attract the wrath of China’s government because of their work defending victims of injustice. The clearest message possible must be sent to China’s authorities that Gao must not be harmed and instead released from prison immediately.

Watch Anish Kapoor and others peforming a version of "Gangnam Style" in support of Gao and those like him:

Gao Zhisheng features as part of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Campaign, which the New Statesman online is supporting as its Christmas campaign. You can play a part in this. Visit www.amnesty.org.uk/gao.
 

Gao Zhisheng with his son.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times