Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 14:11 UK

Profile: Gao Zhisheng

After an absence of over a year - during which he is thought to have been in government detention - Chinese activist Gao Zhisheng has spoken to Western journalists.

Gao Zhisheng (2006 file photo)
Gao Zhisheng has not been seen since February last year

But questions remain over where he has been, exactly where he is now and whether he is actually free.

Mr Gao gave few details of his current circumstances in his phone conversations with reporters and a fellow human rights lawyer, saying he wanted "to live a quiet life for a while".

The lawyer's disappearance early last year prompted international concern, with foreign governments urging the Chinese government to reveal his whereabouts.

Human rights groups that asked why he had been taken and what condition he was in received only cryptic hints from officials.

The lawyer has long been targeted by the government, which has previously stopped him working, put him on trial and kept him under surveillance.

After first vanishing in January 2009, he briefly reappeared at his family's home in Shaanxi province the following month - accompanied by people believed to be security officials - and has not been seen since.

The lawyer did manage to telephone his elder brother, Gao Zhiyi, last summer to say he was all right but he added that he was not free and did not say where he was.

The new calls - in which he said he was living near Wutai mountain, a Buddhist landmark in northern Shanxi province, but gave few other details - have shed little light on his mysterious disappearance.

'Inciting subversion'

Gao Zhisheng, a self-taught lawyer, has not always been at odds with the people who run China. He was once a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2001, he was acclaimed as one of the 10 best lawyers in the country by a publication run by the Ministry of Justice.

But he ran into trouble when he started to defend some of China's most disadvantaged groups, such as supporters of the banned spiritual movement, Falun Gong.

Mr Gao's law practice was closed down in 2005. The government said one problem was that the lawyer had failed to tell officials of a change of address.

The following year he was given a suspended prison sentence for "inciting subversion".

Family escapes

After that, Mr Gao and his family - he is married with two children - were subjected to constant surveillance by the authorities. He was even detained again in September 2007.

He said he was tortured while in detention. His captors beat him with electric batons, held lit cigarettes close to his eyes and subjected him to psychological abuse over more than 50 days, he said.

"Many horrendous evils were committed that were too shameful to be written down in the chronicles of the governments of the world," he said in an account of the event.

Mr Gao's wife and children escaped China last year and now live in the United States but relatives still in China have made efforts to find out where he is.

His brother travelled to Beijing in December and tracked down a policeman who had been involved in the case, but was told he had been missing since September.

All this is irregular, even in a country that often faces criticism for its human rights record, says the BBC's Michael Bristow in Beijing.

Over the months, foreign governments, including the US, have kept up the pressure on China to reveal the whereabouts of a man who has become well-known abroad.

Journalists have also raised the issue at the regular press briefings held by the foreign ministry - although the answers given to queries have failed to elicit much information.

The concerns over Mr Gao's welfare are likely to continue despite his new contact with the outside world.

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