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 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 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.

Gao's wife said from the United States that she was still uneasy because of the lack of information.

"When I heard what they said, all I could think was 'Oh, it means he's still alive,' " Geng said, crying, in a phone interview.

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 United States expressed deep disappointment over Friday's announcement, describing Gao's forced disappearance and treatment as a serious human-rights concern.

"We're especially concerned about Gao's welfare and whereabouts, including reports that his family has been unable to communicate with him. We reiterate our calls for the Chinese government to immediately release Gao from custody and clarify his whereabouts," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

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