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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.