China's government Friday announced that prominent civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng [advocacy website; JURIST news archive] would be sent to prison for three years for violating his probation. Gao's sentence is the first sign that he is still alive [AP report] since having disappeared 20 months ago, presumably at the hands of the authorities. The announcement was made in a brief report by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, but did not give information about his health and whereabouts, either now or in the passed 20 months, and did not explain what violations Gao had committed in violation of his five-year probation, which was scheduled to expire this Thursday. Gao was convicted of subversion in 2006 and sentenced to three years in prison, but he was quickly released on probation before he was taken away in 2009 in the first of his forced disappearances. He has been a prominent figure for the civil rights movement in China, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters. Gao's wife and two children fled China around the time he first disappeared and now live in the US. She has said that Gao's family has yet to receive any notice about his case from the police or courts and have no knowledge of his current whereabouts.
China's human rights record has been widely criticized. The US Department of State [official website] in June urged [JURIST report] the Chinese government to release protesters arrested for their Tiananmen Square involvement and account for those missing or killed during the suppression. The State Department also urged China to protect universal human rights afforded to peaceful dissenters, and to release those that had been detained or placed under house arrest in the months prior. In May, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention [official website] called for the immediate release of Chinese rights activist and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo [BBC profile; JURIST news archive]. Liu, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia, is currently serving an 11-year prison term [JURIST reports] after being convicted on charges of subversion in a trial that lasted only two hours and was closed to foreign diplomats.