BEIJING — The police stripped Gao Zhisheng bare and pummeled him with handguns in holsters. For two days and nights, they took turns beating him and did things he refused to describe. When all three officers tired, they bound his arms and legs with plastic bags and threw him to the floor until they caught their breath to resume the abuse.
"That degree of cruelty, there's no way to recount it," the civil rights lawyer said, his normally commanding voice quavering. "For 48 hours my life hung by a thread."
The beatings were the worst he said he ever endured and the darkest point of 14 months, ending last March, during which Gao was secretly held by Chinese authorities. He described his ordeal to The Associated Press that April, but asked that his account not be made public unless he went missing again or made it to "someplace safe" like the United States or Europe.
Two weeks later, he disappeared again. His family and friends say they have not heard from him in the more than eight months since. Police agencies either declined to comment or said they did not know Gao's whereabouts. The AP decided to publish his account given the length of his current disappearance.
Gao had been a galvanizing figure for the rights movement, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters, including members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. His disappearance in 2009 set off an international outcry that may have played a role in winning his brief release last year.
Among democracy and rights campaigners, Gao appears to have been singled out for frequent, harsh punishment beyond the slim protections of China's laws.
"It seems to be that they are afraid of Gao in a way they aren't of others," Maran Turner, the executive director of Freedom Now, a Washington-based group that advocates for political prisoners, Gao among them.
Gao's wife, brother and friends fear for his safety. They hope publicizing his account will place renewed pressure on the government to disclose Gao's whereabouts and refocus international attention diverted to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident writer awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
"We've had no word of him all this time," his wife, Geng He, said last week in a telephone interview from the San Francisco area, where she and their children live. "This could help us get some news of him and gain his freedom."
Gao spoke to the AP in a nearly empty Beijing teahouse watched outside by plainclothes police. Weary-looking rather than his normally forceful self, he said that over those 14 months police had stashed him in hostels, farm houses, apartments and prisons in Beijing, his native province of Shaanxi and the far western region of Xinjiang, where he lived for many years.
Weeks of inactivity were punctuated by outbursts of brutality. He was hooded several times. His captors tied him up with belts, made him sit motionless for up to 16 hours and told him his children were having nervous breakdowns. They threatened to kill him and dump his body in a river.
"'You must forget you're human. You're a beast,'" Gao said his police tormentors told him in September 2009.
Excessive even for China's often abusive police, the treatment given to Gao highlights the authoritarian government's willingness to breach its own laws to silence critics.
Gao had been jailed on subversion charges in 2006 for his increasingly public activism. But unlike most convicted subversives, Gao was released, his three-year sentence suspended. Watched constantly, he had run-ins with police who harassed him and his family. His wife and two children fled China, escorted by human traffickers overland to Southeast Asia.
Gao in April said that police seemed intent on casting him into a limbo that kept him at their whim.
"Why don't you put me in prison?" Gao said he asked Beijing police at one point. "They said, 'You going to prison, that's a dream. You're not good enough for that. Whenever we want you to disappear, you will disappear.'"
The Public Security Ministry, which oversees police forces, did not respond to telephoned and faxed inquiries about Gao. Police in Beijing, Shaanxi and Xinjiang – locations where Gao said he was held – declined comment on his current predicament as well as his past treatment.
"We didn't handle the case of Gao Zhisheng and we don't know who did. As far as we know, he did stay in Xinjiang to visit his relatives for a period of time," said a Ms. Li from the information office of the Xinjiang Public Security Department.
Gao described snippets of his disappearance to close friends who corroborated parts of the account he gave the AP. But there are also discrepancies in accounts among Gao and his supporters.
During his 2009-10 disappearance, Gao's family and human rights groups said his whereabouts were unknown. But Gao said in the April interview that he had a few moments of contact with relatives: a 90-minute visit with his older brother near their family home in June 2009; a visit with his mother-in-law at his in-laws' in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, a few weeks later; and later a furtive phone conversation with his wife that she said was via a policeman's mobile phone.
Gao told the AP that he wanted to be reunited with his family and would even go abroad, but rejected a U.S. diplomat who offered to help days later.
Turner of Freedom Now said accounts by political prisoners under authoritarian regimes often contain inconsistencies, frequently to protect themselves, family or others.
Gao said that in February 2009, police first spirited Gao from Beijing to Yulin, a poor area of barren yellow hills where he grew up. Within weeks, police brought him back to Beijing by car, covering his head with a pair of underwear. There, he said he was kept in a room with lights on 24 hours a day, its windows boarded up, and fed rotten, dirty cabbage twice a day.
On April 28, he said, six plainclothes officers bound him with belts and put a wet towel around his face for an hour, bringing on a feeling of slow suffocation.
Two months later, he was sent back to Yulin and then on to Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, where his treatment improved. He said he was occasionally allowed evening strolls, police escorts trailing behind, during the several months he was kept in the Wild Horse apartment block on Urumqi's outskirts.
The most brutal period of Gao's 2009-10 disappearance began with a Sept. 25 walk. A group of Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority group, approached him and punched him in the stomach. They handcuffed him, taped his mouth and eyes shut and took him into the upstairs room of a building, beginning a week of mistreatment that culminated with the 48 hours of pistol-whipping and other abuse.
Earlier that summer, communal violence erupted between Uighurs and members of the Han Chinese majority, and the city was tense. But Gao said he knew his assailants were plainclothes police. "Bandits would never use handcuffs," he said.
His captors told him they were members of a counterterrorism unit and boasted about their harsh interrogation methods.
Gao said the torture was worse than a previous disappearance in 2007, when security forces gave him electric shocks to his genitals and held burning cigarettes close to his eyes to cause temporary blindness.
Gao said he learned later that he was being held in Xinjiang's Public Security Department detention center. His guards told him he was being held with suspects from the deadly July communal riots.
"I said, 'All people, criminals should have their rights protected.' They bent me over, forcing my head to bow 90 degrees while standing. It was painful," Gao said.
Conditions improved after U.S. President Barack Obama's Beijing summit in November 2009. Police, Gao said, sent him back to Yulin, but to an isolated area near the desert. They pressured him to write a letter asking his brother to stop traveling to Beijing to seek his release.
A group of 10 officials from Beijing arrived late in February 2010 to negotiate with Gao terms for his limited freedom.
"They said that if I wanted to see my family and wife, I must play along in a performance," Gao said.
Gao was taken to Mount Wutai, a Buddhist retreat, and police told his family that he went there to seek peace. The explanation spread – police put Gao's mobile number on Twitter – but it seemed so out of character for the talkative, argumentative Gao that it triggered speculation about the bargains struck for his release. Soon he returned to Beijing.
Gao only alluded to compromises in the interview: "In reality, even today I have not gained my freedom."
He apologized for the disappointment he said he was likely to cause supporters by no longer being at the forefront of the rights movement. He also hinted at inner conflicts.
"Mankind's path to constitutional government is one that no obstruction can stop," Gao said. "In China, I never see the risks. My character is one that is unwilling to be controlled by other people. I want to go on."
Associated Press videographer Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.