Friday, August 6, 2010
The International Human Rights Lawyer Award recognized human rights contributions of lawyers around the world. The 2010 award was presented today in San Francisco during the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. It was presented at the Section Council meeting of the ABA Section of International Law.
Penny Wakefield, speaking on behalf of the International Human Rights Law Committee of the ABA Section of International Law, spoke about concern for lawyers and human rights defenders around the world and, in connection with this award, with the People's Republic of China.
Gao Zhisheng was a lawyer working to support the rights of home owners, business owners, and coal workers. He had a difficult childhood and witnessed a great deal of injustice while growing up. When China announced that it would increase the number of lawyers he jumped at the chance to go to school and become a lawyer. He passed the bar exam in 1994 at a time when only 1 in 100 applicants passed the bar. He became a prominent lawyer and in 2001 was named by the Department of Justice as a prominent lawyer. His work started to include defending the rights of home owners, business owners, workers, and eventually even practitioners of Falun Gong. Because of that work, his law license was taken from him in 2005. In 2006, he was charged with subversion and sentenced to house arrest. In 2007, just before the Olympics, he wrote a letter to the US Congress to explain the human rights situation. He was arrested and reportedly tortured for a period of almost 60 days. He told a journalist about that experience and said that the loss of dignity made him feel as if he was nothing but an animal. His family was also arrested and allegedly tortured. His wife and two children were able to escape from China and arrived in the United States last year.
Gao Zhisheng was not present to receive the award -- he is missing. It is not known whether he is in hiding or whether he has disappeared. His teenage daughter accepted the award on his behalf and wrote a short note (which was read in translation) about how happy her father would have been to accept the award and how much she misses him.
ABA Section Chair Glenn Herring told Gao's daughter that he hoped her father would be able to one day hold the award and that he would be reunited with his family. He noted that the ABA Section of International Law had worked on a rule of law letter to urge greater protection for lawyers in China. Gao's daughter received extended applause on behalf of her father.
How sad that a well respected lawyer cannot protect himself from the kinds of abuses inflicted here. Gao was persecuted for defending clients, the essential work of attorneys around the world. The International Human Rights Lawyer Award given today raises awareness of his case and of the plight of international human rights lawyers around the world.