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Monday, March 02, 2009

Gao Zhisheng Peace Prize nominee taken into custody Feb. 4

Supporters fear for missing peace activist

By Matthew Pearson, The Ottawa Citizen March 2, 2009 4:04 AM
Supporters of a renowned human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee arrested in China last month will gather in front of the Chinese Embassy today to demand his release.

Gao Zhisheng was detained at his home in Shaanxi province on Feb. 4 by more than 10 security agents, according to Amnesty International. His current whereabouts are unknown, but the human rights organization says wherever he is, there's a good chance he's facing torture.

Gao, 44, was recognized in 2001 by China's Ministry of Justice as one of the country's top lawyers. But he fell afoul of authorities several years later when he began defending underground Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and human rights activists.

He has faced 24-hour police surveillance and bouts of imprisonment and torture ever since.

"We believe he is in danger, so we need to give him a voice," said protest organizer Grace Wollensak.

She said the lunch-hour protest may draw a small crowd, but encouraged people to write to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Lawrence Cannon, minister of Foreign Affairs, to urge the Chinese government to release Gao immediately.

Wollensak, a member of the Falun Dafa Association, said Gao is a Christian, not a practitioner of Falun Gong.

Human rights advocate and former MP David Kilgour is set to speak at today's rally. He called Gao a "man of enormous courage" who has paid a heavy price for what he's done.

Kilgour, who has never met Gao, nominated the self-taught lawyer for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

"I would walk a long, long way on a cold day to shake his hand," Kilgour said. "He's one of my heroes and I put him up with (Nelson) Mandela, (Mahatma) Ghandi and Abraham Lincoln. I can think of few people I admire more than him."

Gao is part of China's growing domestic human rights community.

But Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, says the jailed attorney needs protection and urges the Canadian government to pressure its Chinese counterpart to release him.

"There is grave concern about his safety and we want the Canadian government to make it clear to the Chinese government that this is unacceptable," Neve said.

Earlier this month, a Washington-based non-profit Christian association that promotes religious freedom in China released a lengthy letter Gao wrote in 2007 after he was held and tortured for 50 days.

In it, Gao wrote that interrogators beat him with electric batons, pierced his penis with toothpicks and held lit cigarettes underneath his eyes to the point they were swollen shut.

Calls to the Chinese Embassy were not returned.

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