Uncertain condition ... Gao Zhisheng has been held captive since February, but security forces won't say where.

Uncertain condition ... Gao Zhisheng has been held captive since February, but security forces won't say where.

BEIJING: Gao Zhisheng, a prominent rights activist who many feared had been killed by Chinese security forces, is still alive, his captors say.

Mr Gao was abducted by at least seven security officials on February 4 last year, his relatives said. An outspoken lawyer, he had represented persecuted Falun Gong practitioners and had published a harrowing account of his own torture at the hands of State Security officers.

Contrary to Chinese law, he has not been charged and the Government has never acknowledged his abduction. He has not been in contact with lawyers, friends or family except for one phone call to his brother in July.

Fears that Mr Gao had been killed for speaking out about his previous mistreatment were heightened by reports last week that a policeman had told his brother he had ''gone missing'' on September 25.

The comment was widely interpreted as a euphemism for his death. But a well-placed source in the security apparatus told the Herald: ''Gao is still alive at present he's not missing.''

The source said his organisation knew where Mr Gao was staying but was not free to say. He gave no indication of Mr Gao's situation, condition or prospects.

The Herald has come across several cases where police have falsely told relatives that detainees had been killed, apparently as a form of emotional harassment.

An open letter from Mr Gao was published by his friends on February 9, five days after his detention. It detailed 10 days of torture in September 2007 that involved beatings, electric prods and even toothpicks to his naked body, followed by weeks of emotional torture.

His torturers said his case had become personal with ''uncles'' in the state security apparatus after Mr Gao repeatedly publicised previous mistreatment.

''You listen, Gao, today your uncles want nothing but to make your life worse than death,'' he wrote in the letter. ''I tell you the truth, your matter is not only between you and the government. Every time when I was tortured, I was always repeatedly threatened that, if I spelled out later what had happened to me, I would be tortured again, but I was told, 'This time it will happen in front of your wife and children'.''

A month before he was detained last year, the Gao family fled across the southern border and received asylum in the United States, where they remain.

Mr Gao had built strong links in US human rights, church and political circles. The Herald understands the US embassy raised his abduction several times last year. His case is arguably the most egregious and well-known departure from China's previous commitments to the rule of law.