A Chinese human rights lawyer missing for almost a year has been judged by legal authorities and "is where he should be," a Foreign Ministry official said in China's first public comment on the case.
Gao Zhisheng, one of China's most daring lawyers, has drawn international attention for the unusual length of his disappearance and for his earlier reports of the torture he said he faced from security forces. In a memoir, he described severe beatings, electric shocks to his genitals and cigarettes held to his eyes.
His brother said earlier this month that the Beijing police officer who took Gao away in February 2009 told him he "went missing" in September, leading to fears for the lawyer's safety.
But at a regular press conference Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu indicated that Gao was in custody, after he was asked whether he knew where Gao was.
"The relevant judicial authorities have decided this case, and we should say this person, according to Chinese law, is where he should be," Ma said.
"As far as what exactly he's doing, I don't know. You can ask relevant authorities," he said.
A transcript of Thursday's news conference posted on the ministry's Web site did not include the question on Gao or Ma's response.
Beijing's Public Security Bureau referred questions Friday to the Beijing High Court. The court's press office referred questions to its foreign affairs office, but telephone calls went unanswered.
'Chinese law ... being ignored'
Gao has been one of China's best-known activist lawyers, taking on highly sensitive cases involving the banned Falun Gong spiritual group and eventually advocating constitutional reform. When he disappeared last year, it was presumed police had taken him into custody.
It has never been clear what happened to him after that.
A lawyer for Gao, Li Fangping, called the Foreign Ministry's comments "extremely insincere," and said Friday that after one year, no one in Gao's family knows where he is.
"His case is an indication of China's human rights situation," Li said.
Human rights group Amnesty International said that Chinese law requires authorities to tell Gao's family where he is.
"Repeated comments that authorities are acting according to law only fall flat when it is so obvious that Chinese law is in fact being ignored," Roseann Rife, deputy program director for Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific office, said in an e-mail.
Gao has long faced pressure from authorities. He was arrested in August 2006, convicted at a one-day trial and placed under house arrest. He was accused of subversion on the basis of nine articles posted on foreign Web sites, state media reported at the time.
Gao did not appeal that conviction, according to Li.