May 08, 2009

Law school honors missing Chinese attorney

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Chinese human rights attorney missing since February after being detained by Chinese police was honored by the Southern Illinois University School of Law during commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 7.

Gao Zhisheng received the law school’s 2009 Rule of Law Citation. The citation is a formal recognition by the law school faculty of the important tradition of the legal profession that “requires lawyers to stand firm in support of liberty and justice in the face of oppression and, by their words and actions, to honor and support the Rule of Law even at great personal risk.”

One of China’s leading dissidents, Gao, a self-taught attorney, was first detained, according to various media reports, for writing an open letter in September 2007 to the U.S. Congress and other international organizations calling for a boycott of last year’s Beijing Olympics because of China’s human rights abuses. That resulted in a 58-day imprisonment and torture, according to some reports.

Dean Peter C. Alexander said that as law school graduates embark on their careers, it is important for them to remember the sacrifices and hardships that lawyers throughout the world face.

“It’s a very important part of our graduation ceremony,” he said. “It’s an important lesson for our students to understand that lawyers sometimes suffer and are punished merely because they are lawyers.”

A total of 104 law students earned degrees in ceremonies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Shryock Auditorium.

A commencement hood and scroll placed on an empty chair in the front row with law school faculty symbolizes the law school standing with lawyers who are suffering for the Rule of Law.

A 2008 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gao was honored in 2001 by the Chinese government as one of that country’s top 10 lawyers, according to a report earlier this month by National Public Radio.

But Gao then began working to defend the rights of laborers and citizens seeking redress from the government, and he also defended members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. His law firm closed in 2005, and his license was suspended. Gao’s prison sentence for a 2006 conviction for subversion was later suspended.

U.S. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., spoke before the U.S. Senate last month urging China to account for Gao’s whereabouts and to justify its grounds for his continued detention, according to media reports. Gao’s wife and two children escaped the country in January and are in the U.S.