Beijing under pressure to free Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo's widow

Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China on July 13, 2017.
Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China on July 13, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

SHENYANG (AFP, REUTERS) - China faced international calls on Friday (July 14) to free the widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo after global condemnation over the Communist regime's refusal to grant the democracy champion's dying wish to leave the country.

Friends of China's Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident, who died of liver cancer in custody, said on Friday they are still unable to contact his widow, poet Liu Xia, and that ensuring her freedom is now a top priority.

The United States and the European Union urged President Xi Jinping's government to let Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since 2010, leave the country.

Chinese doctors said she was by her husband's side when he lost his battle with liver cancer on Thursday at age 61, more than a month after he was transferred from prison to a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang.

Mr Liu's main doctor said he was able to say goodbye to his wife and in his final moments told her to "live well".

But authorities have restricted her contact with the outside world and her whereabouts were unknown following the death of her husband, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests whose advocacy for democratic reform infuriated the government.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein urged China to guarantee Liu Xia freedom of movement, and allow her to travel abroad should she want to. The EU asked Beijing to let Madam Liu Xia and his family bury him "at a place and in a manner of their choosing, and to allow them to grieve in peace".

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: "I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes." 

Mr Jared Genser, a US lawyer who represented Mr Liu, said all contact with Madam Liu had been cut off in the past 48 hours.

"I am deeply worried about what's happening with her right now," Mr Genser told CNN, adding that it would be hard for the government to justify continuing to hold her without charges.

"The world really needs to rally and mobilise to make sure she can go wherever she wants and that she can bury her husband wherever she wants," he said.

Hu Jia, a fellow dissident and family friend, said Liu Xia's freedom was now a top priority for Liu Xiaobo's supporters. "Now, we are most concerned about Liu Xia, but there has been no information about her. She is at this moment the person who is suffering most," Hu said. "All the willpower and force we put behind freeing Liu Xiaobo, we have turned to Liu Xia," he said, calling on the United States and Germany to continue pressuring China to free Liu Xia.

Efforts should also focus on Liu Hui, the younger brother of Liu Xia, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013 for fraud and to whom Liu Xia is very close, Hu said.

Several other family friends also confirmed that they were still unable to contact Liu Xia or other members of Liu's family to confirm her whereabouts.

CHINA REJECTS CRITICISM

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected the criticism of China's handling of Mr Liu's death, adding that doctors made "all-out" efforts to treat him.

"China is a country under the rule of law. The handling of Liu Xiaobo's case belongs to China's internal affairs, and foreign countries are in no position to make improper remarks," Mr Geng was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

The remarks came after British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hit out at China for preventing Mr Liu from travelling overseas for treatment while Germany voiced regret that Beijing ignored its offer to host Mr Liu.

Mr Liu was jailed in 2008 after co-writing a petition calling for democratic reforms and was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "subversion" a year later.

He became the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1938, who had been held by the Nazis.

The Chinese political prisoner was represented by an empty chair at his Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo in 2010.

The Nobel Committee said on Thursday that the government "bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death".

MUTED REACTIONS

But some of the global reaction to his death was muted, highlighting China's emergence as an economic and diplomatic superpower on the world stage.

US President Donald Trump and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron offered praise for Mr Xi at a press conference on Thursday in Paris, avoiding comment on Mr Liu's death.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply saddened" but refrained from criticising China for refusing to allow the Nobel laureate to receive treatment abroad.

In a sign of China's growing confidence, the state-controlled Global Times newspaper said in an English-language editorial that "the West has bestowed upon Liu a halo, which will not linger".

The government strived over the years to erase any memory of Mr Liu and a search for his death turned up nothing on Baidu, China's Google-like search engine.

Mr Liu's Chinese doctors had said he was not healthy enough to travel abroad, a position contradicted by US and German medical experts invited by the hospital to examine him last weekend.

But Dr Liu Yunpeng, the hospital's head of internal medicine, said on Thursday that the writer's condition abruptly deteriorated after the foreign doctors requested an assessment to determine if he could travel.

"The danger (of travelling) was extremely great," Dr Liu said.

'I'M SORRY, XIAOBO'

Mr Liu was arrested nine years ago after co-writing Charter 08, a bold petition that called for the protection of basic human rights and reform of China's political system.

During the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, he helped negotiate the safe exit of thousands of student demonstrators on the night of June 3-4, 1989 when the military bloodily suppressed six weeks of protests.

Fellow activists and family friends were in mourning.

"I'm sorry, Xiaobo. I'm sorry. We put forth our greatest effort, but we could not win your freedom while you were still living," Beijing-based activist Hu Jia said on Twitter.

"But we will continue fighting for freedom for your love Liu Xia. The world is sorrowful. Your unfulfilled wish is our mission."