From China to Christchurch celebrating Gao Zhisheng's release

18 August 2014, 00:00 UTC | China, New Zealand
Gao Zhisheng with his family © Hu Jia
By the Amnesty International New Zealand Editorial Team

Turning up to this months’ Christchurch Regional Team meeting felt a little more emotional than usual (beyond the feeling of ‘gah, the traffic!’ as I was running late, as usual). As well as an agenda full of events to plan and some new members to welcome to the group, it was also August, which meant G-day was just around the corner.

Yes, the release of our ‘adopted’ prisoner of conscience, Gao Zhisheng, was due any day now, and yet there was nothing certain to celebrate just yet. No news may be good news in some cases, but in a case like this, with a history of enforced disappearance, we’d remained anxious but optimistic throughout our campaigning.

Fast forward two days, and the scene is very different. Overnight, the news broke that he had been released from prison, and this great news was welcomed with a flurry of excited and relieved emails from the team. We’re obviously an attentive (or insomniac) bunch, as the news came through close to midnight, and there were several delighted responses before the break of day!

Even though he wasn’t released before his due release date (we’ve been campaigning for his immediate release since adopting the case), it was still a huge relief to get the good news. It may have meant waiting while China extracted their full sentence from Gao, but we’re delighted that he can finally rejoin his family and begin to rebuild his life.

We’re also very pleased that his release date was honoured as we had concerns about what would happen next, since his case history has been dotted with stories of not only enforced disappearance, but also ill-treatment. For someone who has committed his career, at high risk, to protecting the rights of others, we had no assurance that he would be awarded those same rights upon his due release date.

The Christchurch team has been campaigning for his release since 2012; we even held a 50th birthday party for him at Shop Eight on New Regent Street earlier in the year to celebrate his big day while he couldn’t do so, and to show our support and raise awareness for his case.

“We’re thrilled with the news that Gao is finally out” said group member and media spokesperson Stefan Fairweather, who threw himself into action immediately to get the good news out. “Mr Gao was imprisoned on trumped up charges. He has been into bat for religious minorities and has defended other human rights activists in China, and for simply doing his job, he was put in prison. This is wrong and should not be tolerated.”

Our Group Secretary, Anna Stevens echoes the relief felt throughout the group, adding “I’m extremely happy to hear Gao Zhisheng’s unjust imprisonment has finally ended, and hope that he will be able to reunite safely with his family and friends. I do remain concerned about his long-term wellbeing in light of the extended persecution inflicted on him by the authorities due to his support of human rights. We are so fortunate to live in a country where we can act on behalf of someone like Gao and not suffer for it! This good news is a great inspiration to keep taking such action.”

Anna is right: we are very fortunate, and in a great position to campaign freely for the rights of others. This case demonstrates that it’s a worthwhile use of our time and freedom too. We’ll continue to follow any further developments in Gao’s case, but hope that the only news coming from Gao’s family and friends relates to his recovery and future happiness.

Gao Zhisheng is a prominent human rights lawyer, and was sentenced to three years in prison in 2011 for ‘violating probation rule’ on earlier charges of ‘inciting subversion’. Amnesty International, along with the US, the European Union and the United Nations, had repeatedly called on the Chinese authorities to release him. For more information on Gao Zhisheng’s case or how to become involved with the Amnesty Christchurch group, please email CHCHRT@amnesty.org.nz

International Region: