BEIJING (AP) — One of China's best-known rights lawyers and a bold government critic whose accounts of torture drew international criticism of Beijing was released from prison Thursday but appeared to be under close supervision by the authorities.
The United States urged China to allow Gao Zhisheng to come to the U.S. to be reunited with his family if he chooses. His wife lives in San Francisco.
Gao left a prison in the remote, far-western county of Shaya with his brother who had traveled there to fetch him, according to Beijing activist and friend Hu Jia, who spoke to Gao's brother by phone.
The brothers appeared to be accompanied by minders who were preventing them from saying much, Hu said.
Before his imprisonment, Gao was a leading rights lawyer admired for his bold defense of politically sensitive members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and farmers with land disputes. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his work.
Later Thursday, Gao arrived in the city of Urumqi with his brother and was taken to his sister-in-law's home, Gao's wife Geng told The Associated Press from San Francisco.
"I spoke to Gao Zhisheng, I spoke to him," Geng said, her voice filled with emotion because it was the first conversation she had had with her husband in more than four years.
But, Geng said, it was clear there were minders present, their unfamiliar voices filling her sister's room.
"I asked him how his health was, and all he was able to say was, 'My teeth are in bad shape,'" she said.
Geng said her sister told her that a half-dozen of Gao's teeth were loose and that he had to use his hands to tear into tiny pieces the servings of steamed buns that prisoners get. "Can you imagine the kind of ill-treatment he was facing in there?" she said.
Freedom Now, which has served as pro bono counsel to Gao since 2010, quoted Geng as saying: "I am deeply concerned that he has been seriously tortured in custody."
"I call on the Chinese Government to allow me and our children Grace and Peter to be reunited with Gao," Geng was quoted as saying. "Until that happens, our ordeal is not yet over."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf welcomed Gao's release upon completion of his sentence.
"We also urge Chinese authorities to allow him to leave China to be reunited with his family in the United States if he so chooses," she told reporters.
Harf called for China to free all its remaining prisoners of conscience and uphold its commitments to respect human rights.
Jared Genser, Gao's international lawyer called on the Chinese government to remove the security cordon around Gao, let him speak freely, and travel in China and abroad.
"While Gao has been released from prison, it is abundantly clear he is not yet free," Genser said in a statement. "Until he is reunited with his wife and children, our work will continue."
Gao's release and reunion with relatives marks a potential turning point for him after being allowed only two visits by relatives over the past three years. His wife and two children fled to the United States in 2009, fearing for their safety, and were accepted as refugees.
But activists and other rights lawyers said they are doubtful that the authorities would grant even some basic freedoms to Gao, who's still considered a leading light in the country's small rights lawyers' community.
"Among all the rights lawyers, he has endured the most suffering and we are happy that he was able to come out today," said Beijing rights attorney Li Fangping. "But we feel very pessimistic about the days ahead. In the past, he was always in either illegal detention or being tortured. We are very worried about whether he will be able to regain full freedom."
Convicted in 2006 of subversion and sentenced to three years, he was released on probation before being taken away by security agents in 2009 in the first of his forced disappearances that set off an international outcry. In 2011, he was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his probation, according to state media.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.