Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Gao Zhisheng left Shaya Prison in Xinjiang on 7 August 2014. He left prison; he is not free. During the additional year of deprivation of political rights which he must serve, he has no freedom of speech, association, assembly, procession or demonstration, as well as being unable to vote, stand for election, or hold a position in any state organization. His brother, Gao Zhiyi, who collected him from prison, has already warned reporters that it is “really inconvenient” to speak about Gao’s case, code for being under tight police surveillance.

Gao Zhisheng’s wife, Geng He, in exile in the US with the couple’s children, was surprised that her brother-in-law even refused to put Gao on the phone to her during their journey from the prison into Urumqi. We now know why: along with freedom of speech, her husband has all but lost the power of speech as a direct result of the torture to which he has been subjected for the past two and a half years. It’s not just the malnutrition from a daily diet of one slice of bread and one piece of cabbage which has left his few remaining teeth loose in his gums; it is more the psychological effect of being denied any human contact for months of solitary confinement in his tiny, dark cell, where even the prison guards were forbidden to speak to him.

Gao was a particularly articulate and effective advocate for some of the people least likely to get justice in China: Falun Gong practitioners, house-church Christians, farmers whose land had been illegally confiscated, workers in dispute with their employers, and victims of a coal-mining accident in his native Shanxi. Gao himself worked as a miner in his teens; like fellow legal activist Chen Guangcheng, he was largely self-taught, rising to become one of China’s top ten lawyers in 2001, and a CCP member. This man, whose presentation of workers’ cases in 2004 was described by the China Labour Bulletin’s Robin Munro as “masterful”, is now reduced to unintelligible muttering most of the time, only managing short bursts of coherent speech. He is, as his wife says, “utterly destroyed”.

Gao’s December 2006 three-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” was suspended for five years, but that apparent concession took him out of the formal justice system and into the parallel system of “black jails” where detainees have no rights or safeguards, even on paper. In 2007 Gao’s torturers told him that they were using on him the same methods used on Falun Gong practitioners. The English-language version of his account of this torture is regularly removed from the internet; I provide the link to the Epoch Times’ posting of it because it is an important document, but it’s only fair to warn that it is a deeply distressing read. Videos of Gao’s torture have since been used to intimidate other lawyers.

Still with the suspended sentence hanging over him, Gao disappeared again in February 2009, and the Chinese authorities refused for months to tell his family or anyone else where he was, or even whether he was alive or dead. In September 2009 police told his brother that Gao had gone missing while out for a walk; then in January 2010, a Western journalist was told by a security source that Gao was in custody. Shortly after, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu announced that Gao’s case had been decided by judicial authorities and that he was “where he should be”, only to change his story a week later and say that “Honestly speaking, I don’t know where he is. China has 1.3 billion people and I can’t know all of their whereabouts.” After another ten days, China’s Washington embassy told a human-rights group that Gao was free and working in Urumqi, and doctored photographs purporting to show Gao in Urumqi appeared online.

These were all lies. Gao reappeared in March 2010 for less than a month, leaving an interview with the Associated Press which was only to be published if he disappeared again or was able to get out of China; they eventually published it in early 2011. In it, Gao revealed further torture during the year he had been missing, although in contrast to his detailed and graphic account from 2007, this time he said that in addition to stripping him naked and beating him with handguns in holsters, police “did things he refused to describe” to him. When Gao’s five-year probation ended on Sunday 14 August 2011 but he failed to reappear, the authorities told his wife that he had “lost his way home”, another lie, as he had actually been returned to prison in Xinjiang to complete his original three-year sentence. They waited until the very last week when they could revoke his probation before doing so.

Gao’s year of deprivation of rights could stretch into indefinite isolation, surveillance, and pressure to cooperate with the authorities. Inner Mongolian rights activist Hada, “released” from prison at the end of a fifteen-year sentence in December 2010, is still in a “black jail” in Hohhot, denied medical treatment for the severe depression and paranoia he has developed over 18 years of incarceration, but reportedly supplied with plenty of alcohol. His family are continually threatened over their “non-cooperation” and persistence in making Hada’s condition known outside China, using trumped-up drugs charges against his son and ever-tighter restrictions on his wife’s links with outside world.

So let’s not celebrate too soon the abolition, sort of, of re-education through labour, the banning, twice in one year, of interrogation through torture (it was already illegal), or even the reduced application of the death penalty in China, when activists like Gao and Hada can be so effectively destroyed without the need for lethal injection or a firing squad.

The focus of the next CCP plenum, to be held in October 2014, will be the rule of law in China. Perhaps, to paraphrase Gandhi on western civilization, party leaders will conclude that it would be a good idea.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies, University College Cork. She is a Regular Contributor to the blog.