BEIJING–He has been called "the Conscience of China," someone who – in another country – would probably be hailed as a hero.
But on Feb. 4 in Xiaoshibanqiao village in Shaanxi province, human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was treated worse than a common criminal.
In the small hours of the morning, police entered the home of his in-laws where he had been staying, wrested him from his bed and spirited him off into the darkness.
He has not been seen since.
In the 69 days since he disappeared, rights activists, international lawyers and the Canadian government, have all expressed concerns for his safety.
They want assurances that Gao is safe and still alive.
Their concerns are based on serious and credible allegations that Gao was brutally tortured by police in September 2007. A graphic account of that torture, written by Gao himself, was released in February by the New York-based non-governmental organization, Human Rights in China.
"It is horrifying," says Irwin Cotler, a Liberal MP and former federal justice minister who has taken a special interest in the case and has read the account in detail. "As long as he is not freed ... there is risk that it may happen again."
The Chinese government, however, has refused to say where Gao is, what condition he's in – even why he was detained.
If there is one major challenge facing Canadian Trade Minister Stockwell Day on his mission to China this week – aimed at helping to heal a Canada-China rift – it's how to patch a battered relationship, without abandoning professed principles.
Reliable sources requesting anonymity say that during the United Nation's Universal Periodic Review of human rights held in February in Geneva, Canada pressed China to conduct "an independent and impartial investigation" into allegations of Gao's torture, to end "arbitrary detention" and to commit to "the prohibition of torture."
To date, China has offered no substantial response.
But its treatment of Gao – and of his family, who last month fled to the United States – has triggered outrage among many, especially lawyers.
"We have heard rumours, unconfirmed, that he has again been subject to terrible torture but is still alive," says New York University law professor Jerome Cohen, who is also an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Cohen called China's treatment of Gao, "disgraceful."
"It irks me to see highly able, civilized technocrats in the (Chinese Communist party's) politburo who go around the world basking in China's new glory – and there are still people who allow this to happen.
"It is the greatest blemish on China's record," Cohen said. "China wants to be considered a civilized modern state – and every day you get these (kinds of) reports."
He said he hopes Canada won't "drop the ball" and presses forward on Gao's behalf.
A former People's Liberation Army soldier and Communist party member, Gao taught himself law and passed the bar examinations with ease in the mid-1990s.
He soon gained fame, battling local government corruption and defending the poor and the persecuted. He had a penchant too for politically sensitive cases.
But many believe he enraged the Communist party when he started defending members of the Falun Gong, a Buddhist-like, religious group preaching peace and tolerance – but which the Chinese government portrays as an evil cult.
Gao does not belong to the Falun Gong. He is a Christian – and staunch defender of freedom of worship and democracy.
He also wrote letters to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao calling for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong adherents.
In December 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for five, for "inciting subversion of state power."
But he wasn't the only one punished. The government's harsh treatment of Gao's wife, his daughter Gege, 16, and son Tianyu, 5, has also sparked outrage.
Although the Chinese government denied it on March 17, Gao's wife, Geng He, told the Star in a later interview from the U.S. of a nightmare of surveillance at the hands of the state, that drove her daughter to attempt suicide – and forced the family to flee China.
"The Communist Party of China had been stalking my husband and our family since 2005," she said.
During one period, she recalled, male and female police moved into their home, located in a humble neighbourhood west of Beijing's glittering Olympic stadium.
"They watched us while we slept," she said. "Our lights had to be kept on 24 hours. When we took showers, they would stand and watch."
Every day Gao's teenage daughter, Gege, was brought to school by police, her every move monitored, then driven back home.
When other students began taunting her, she slumped into depression. Finally, last September, police stopped her from going to school at all.
"Her spirits totally collapsed," her mother recalled. The teenager broke out in a rash, had problems sleeping and on several occasions tried to commit suicide.
"I had to get them out," Geng He said of her children. "I had to give them a chance at school."
She described Gao as "a good husband ... a good father ... and an upright person who had sympathy for the weak."
Every year, she said, he did a third of his cases for free.
Other lawyers who know Gao look up to him. He's tall, confident, a fiery orator – and fearless.
"The Chinese government should provide information about his whereabouts, provide him with access to ... his lawyer and family, and detail on what basis he is being detained," says Martin Flaherty, co-founder of the Leitner Center for International Justice at Fordham University.
"If there are no charges – he should be released."