- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - Geng He said she put herself and her two children in the hands of human traffickers rather than stay in China, where her husband’s relentless activism had made them the targets of endless police harassment.

After a risky overland escape to Thailand, Geng and her children are in the United States. But her husband, lawyer Gao Zhisheng, has disappeared, presumably into Chinese police custody.

A self-trained lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gao began drawing scrutiny after taking on several politically charged cases, including alleged persecution of members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. He later began to advocate constitutional reform of the authoritarian government.

For more than three years, his family has been under constant watch by plainclothes and uniformed police in Beijing. Last year authorities barred their 15-year-old daughter from going to school, leaving her depressed and suicidal, Geng said.

“The pressure we’ve been under for so long made her want to hurt herself, kill herself,” said Geng in a telephone interview from Phoenix, Arizona, where the family has resettled.

Geng, her daughter and 5-year-old son managed to leave Beijing for the southwestern border province of Yunnan on Jan. 9. She didn’t say goodbye to her husband, who wasn’t at their home in Beijing when she left. Instead she left him a note, apologizing.

“From a wife’s perspective, I really wish that I could stay and take care of him,” Geng said tearfully. “But I had no choice. For the children’s good, I had to take them away with me.”

Once in Yunnan, Geng paid the traffickers, known by Chinese as snakeheads, 40,000 yuan ($5,850) to smuggle her and the children across the border by motorcycle. They moved mostly at night, along winding mountain roads.

They couldn’t communicate, so Geng never knew where she was or how much further they had to go. The harrowing trip across the mountains of Southeast Asia ended in Thailand on Jan. 16.

There, the family applied and was accepted by the U.S. as overseas refugees, said Bob Fu, a rights activist that helped coordinate the process.

Fu, the director of the Texas-based Christian rights group China Aid Association, said Geng and her children were “directly accepted by the U.S. as overseas refugees” instead of first applying to the U.N. for refugee status.

Officials at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said they could not comment on individual refugee cases.

On Tuesday, Geng said she and her children flew to Los Angeles, then transited to Phoenix. The family was expected to arrive in New York Saturday night and will be greeted by supporters, said Ann Noonan, president of the New York chapter of the Visual Artists Guild, which has been seeking Gao’s release.

“My children asked me ‘Mom, can we talk here?’” Geng said, describing her arrival in the U.S. “I’d been telling them all the time in Thailand not to speak, afraid someone would notice we were Chinese … Finally, I was able to say ‘Yes you can speak.’”

Geng’s husband is one of the best known of a group of activist lawyers advocating legal reform and protections for human rights. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last year along with another Chinese political dissident, Hu Jia.

Gao disappeared early last month and is believed to be in police detention. Geng said she did not know where her husband was and feared for his safety.

The Beijing Public Security Bureau did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment and information about Gao’s whereabouts.

In a memoir published last year and in earlier open letters, Gao detailed his and his family’s harsh treatment by security forces. He described torture sessions he said he endured that involved severe beatings, electric shocks to his genitals and cigarettes held to his eyes.

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