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Chinese Dissident's Whereabouts Unclear One Year After Detention

One year ago, Chinese authorities detained human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Now, although the government has yet to formally arrest or charge him, his whereabouts are not known.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu has been asked repeatedly whether the government knows where dissident Gao Zhisheng is. On one occasion, he dismissively told reporters "Gao is where he is supposed to be."

On Thursday, the anniversary of Gao's disappearance, he refused to answer more questions on the lawyer's whereabouts.

Ma say the only comment he has is that China follows the rule of law and handles things in accordance with the law.

Ma did not say whether he knows where Gao is, and referred reporters to other authorities.

In 2001, the Chinese Justice Ministry named Gao as one of the country's top 10 lawyers for his work in property rights. After that, though, he took on sensitive cases dealing with police corruption, land seizures and religious freedom. He also spoke out for constitutional reforms.

Gao was arrested in August 2006, convicted of subversion and placed under house arrest. He disappeared back into police custody a year ago.

Chinese authorities last month told Gao's family that he had gone missing last year.

Joshua Rosenzweig is with the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S. group that monitors Chinese political prisoners and that has been seeking Gao's whereabouts.

"Where is the accountability? This is not a situation where you're talking about the whereabouts of an individual citizen out of one point three billion, where the authorities can't necessarily be expected to follow and track every single person," he said. "This is a person who is serving a suspended sentence for a crime, and is therefore supposed to be being monitored by the police. For that person to be out of communication for so long, and for the authorities to be saying that they have no idea where is, boggles the mind."

Rosenzweig says he thinks Gao is still alive.

"I really don't know what to think," he said. "My best guess about this situation is that Gao is being held, most likely illegally, by some authority or agents of some authority, in a kind of incommunicado detention, either in Beijing or elsewhere in the country."

But he acknowledges there are less optimistic possibilities.

"Because among the alternatives is the fear that he has come to serious psychological or bodily harm, or worse, that he has been killed," said Rosenweig. "I haven't gotten to the point where I'm assuming the worst, but I certainly can't rule that out."

News organizations and Gao's family say that repeated inquiries to the police have produced no answers.

Gao's wife Geng He wrote an article in the Washington Post Thursday urging the United States to speak up more for dissidents in China. She said if her husband is still alive, she is certain he is being tortured.

His supporters have sent a legal petition to the United Nations, urging it to take up Gao's case.