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Gemunu Amarasinghe, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this file photo taken on April 7, 2010, Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, speaks during his first meeting with the media since he resurfaced, at a tea house in Beijing, China. State media says a Chinese court has sent activist lawyer Gao back to jail for three years for breaking his probation.

BEIJING — More than a year and a half after prominent civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng disappeared, China's government gave the first sign Friday that he is still alive, saying he would be sent to prison for three years for violating his probation.

A brief report by the state-run Xinhua News Agency gave few details and did not answer key questions about Gao — the condition of his health and his whereabouts now and in the 20 months since he disappeared, presumably at the hands of the authorities.

"Are they sending him to a proper prison? Which prison was he at before? Where were they hiding him?" said Gao's brother, Gao Zhiyi, who has been on a quest to find his sibling.

Charismatic and pugnacious, Gao was a galvanizing figure for the rights movement, advocating constitutional reform and arguing landmark cases to defend property rights and political and religious dissenters. Convicted in 2006 of subversion and sentenced to three years, he was quickly released on probation before being taken away by security agents in 2009 in the first of his forced disappearances that set off an international outcry.

The Xinhua report referred to his 2006 subversion conviction and said Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court found that Gao "had seriously violated probation rules for a number of times, which led to the court decision to withdraw the probation."

The report did not explain what violations Gao had committed but said his five-year probation was due to expire next Thursday — timing which legal experts said may have prompted the government to send Gao back to jail. "He would serve his term in prison in the next three years," the report said.

Calls to the No. 1 court and the city's appeals court rang unanswered Friday.

Gao has been held incommunicado in apparent disregard of laws and regulations for all but two months of the last three years. When he emerged from the first 14-month bout in April 2010, he told The Associated Press that he had been shunted between detention centers, farm houses and apartments across north China and repeatedly beaten and abused.

"It's hard to fathom what they might be referring to when they say that he violated his parole given that he seems to have been under constant supervision," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong. "It's kind of cynical."

The change, Rosenzweig said, gives Chinese leaders a ready response to queries from foreign governments and officials. Gao's case has repeatedly been raised by the U.S. and European governments, drawing cryptic responses if any from Chinese officials. U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke mentioned him in a public statement last weekend.

Gao's wife, Geng He, fled China with their two children around the time he first disappeared and now lives in the United States.

Activists in China seemed astounded and outraged by the news. Huang Qi, who runs a rights monitoring group in Sichuan province, strongly condemned what he said was the use of the judicial system to persecute dissidents and he offered his services to Gao's family.

"Gao Zhisheng has used his actions to write a glorious page in the history of the Chinese democracy movement," Huang said in a statement.

Amnesty International called the move to send Gao to prison "a travesty."

"This inhuman treatment must stop. Gao Zhisheng and his family have suffered enough and he must be freed," Catherine Baber, deputy director in Asia for the group, said in a statement.

While Gao may be the most prominent government critic to be treated so harshly in years, the authorities have done so with other dissidents.

Du Daobin, an outspoken critic also convicted of subversion and sentenced to three years in prison in 2004, did not immediately start his sentence, according to the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group that runs a website Du used to write for. Instead, Du was released and lived under probation for four years before being sent to prison in 2008, apparently because he continued to criticize the government online.

Gao's treatment during his first disappearance has further troubled his family and supporters. His brother, Zhiyi, has been on a constant search for information. When he asked Beijing police in September about his brother, one officer told him Gao Zhisheng was a "missing person and no one knows where he is."

Associated Press writers Alexa Olesen and Gillian Wong contributed to this report.