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“Based on the treatment he suffered in the past, one can only assume what he is being put through now is every bit as grave and severe as it was before, if not more so,” Ms. Turner said.

Mr. Gao’s family has been told by Chinese authorities not to inquire about his whereabouts and have been threatened with dire consequences if they do.

But Mrs. Geng said she is determined to secure her husband’s freedom. She is driven by the fear that he may face the same fate as jailed writer Li Hong, who died last month after being held in custody.

Mrs. Geng said she was unaware of her husband’s work, but says she supports him 100 percent.

“I think that he is doing the right thing and making a lot of people aware of what is happening in China,” she said.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, says Mr. Gao’s disappearance is part of a growing list of “enforced disappearances.”

“We consider enforced disappearances to be among the most serious kinds of abuses we document partly because … the state that is supposed to be protecting you is in fact disappearing you,” Ms. Richardson said.

“Disappearances are notorious for paving the way for other abuses, such as torture and death in custody,” she added.

A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration will continue to urge Chinese leaders to vigorously protect human rights.

“Why Gao has received such bizarre treatment we are not quite sure,” Ms. Turner said of the cycle of disappearance and appearance of Mr. Gao. “He is just a human rights lawyer, he is not a dissident.”