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Missing Chinese Dissident's Family Says He's Alive

Relatives of missing Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng say they can confirm he is still alive, after weeks of speculation about his whereabouts.

The mystery surrounding what happened to one of China's best known dissidents has been partially resolved.

Beth Schwanke, with the independent political prisoner advocacy group Freedom Now, says Gao has been in touch with his family living in exile in the United States.

"Geng He, Gao Zhisheng's wife, is able to confirm that Gao Zhisheng is indeed alive," Schwanke said. "Their children were able to speak to him early Sunday morning U.S. time, and to verify that it was, in fact, him."

Gao is a lawyer and made a name for himself defending medical malpractice victims and dispossessed landowners. In 2001, the Chinese government named him one of the country's top attorneys.

But he ran into trouble with the government after he started defending people accused of being part of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group. In December 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison with five year's reprieve for inciting subversion.

Gao disappeared into police custody in February 2009, when he was on reprieve from his 2006 sentence. His whereabouts became the focus of intense scrutiny after Chinese security authorities were quoted as saying he went missing late last year.

Foreign Ministry officials have provided very little information about Gao, but have repeatedly said the case is being handled according to Chinese law.

The latest information answers some questions, but raises others.

Freedom Now's Schwanke says Gao told his family he is at a famous Buddhist site, Wutai Mountain, in Shanxi Province. But she says the circumstances of his being there are not clear because he apparently could not speak freely.

"He didn't explain. Our legal team's speculation is that he has certainly been under detention since February 4th, 2009," Schwanke said. "However, because of the increasing international pressure, the government felt compelled to allow him to notify people that he was alive."

Gao's wife and two children were granted political asylum in the United States a year ago, after a dramatic overland escape from China, via Thailand.