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

Gao Zhisheng with his son.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.