Where exactly have Chinese dissidents disappeared?

The US has expressed "very worried" about the fate of a Chinese lawyer missing in custody. Washington raised the Gao Zhisheng case with the Chinese government at the end of last year, a spokeswoman for the US embassy in Beijing said on Monday. Family members and human rights groups fear that Gao, known as a courageous human rights attorney, may have died in custody.

The 46-year-old civil rights activist, who was once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was abducted by Chinese security forces almost a year ago. Last Friday, his brother, Gao Zhiyi, was able to speak to one of the police officers involved in the kidnapping.

Gao Zhisheng "got lost" during an outdoor activity and is now "missing," the brother quoted the police officer afterwards. Since then, family members fear that he might have died in custody. The Chinese government remains silent on the allegations.

Despite repeated repression by the Chinese authorities, Gao had repeatedly accepted politically sensitive cases, including trying to defend persecuted members of the Falun Gong sect. He had previously represented poor farmers against corrupt local officials and was therefore even praised once by the central government in Beijing. However, after he drew attention to the torture of Falun Gong members in an open letter to China's head of state and party leader Hu Jintao, he himself became a victim of Chinese repression.

After an earlier detention, he said he had been tortured and forced to confess. Among other things, his genitals had been pierced with toothpicks, he said. Gao's wife, Geng He, asked the Chinese government to clarify her husband's fate. "If he's alive, let's see him," she said in a tearful appeal to reporters in Washington. "When he's dead, tell us where his body is."

The woman fled China in a dramatic escape in January of last year. She could no longer endure the constant harassment of the Chinese state security and fled with her 15-year-old daughter and five-year-old son on foot through the jungle to Thailand. She was later granted political asylum in the United States.

After he was abducted, Gao Zhisheng was denied all contact with his family. "The Chinese government must publish an immediate and full explanation of what it did to Gao Zhisheng," said a spokeswoman for the human rights organization Human Rights Watch in New York. Lawyer friends of the disappeared man in Beijing also expressed indignation. "Gao was in custody. He had nowhere to go," said one of them.