China rights lawyer gets rare prison visit from relatives: group

WASHINGTON (AFP) - China has allowed relatives to visit imprisoned human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng in the first confirmation in months that the prominent dissident is alive, supporters said Wednesday.

Gao, who has defended some of China's most sensitive cases, such as those of underground Christians, the Falungong spiritual movement and dispossessed farmers, has been held virtually incommunicado since February 2009.

Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group, said that Gao's brother and father-in-law visited him on January 12 at a remote prison in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the first family visit since March 24.

The relatives spoke to the prisoner by telephone through a glass window and "Gao's mind seemed clear and he spoke normally," the group said in a statement.

Prison authorities told Gao's brother that Gao would not be allowed to discuss his case, his prison situation or his family, the group said.

Gao's wife Geng He fled to the United States with their two children in 2009 after what she said was constant police harassment. She had previously voiced concern over whether her husband was alive due to the lack of news.

In the statement, Geng He called on "the international community to continue to pay close attention to Gao's case and to press the Chinese government to justify his incarceration." Gao was briefly released in March 2010 but then sent back to prison.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly raised concerns about Gao's detention.

During an earlier period under house arrest, Gao said that he suffered torture by the police including electric shocks to his genitals and cigarette burns to his eyes.