BEIJING - China's leading dissident Liu Xiaobo has been formally arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion, six months after he was taken from his home and detained in an unknown location.
The long-time critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was locked up for co-drafting a petition, known as Charter 08, that calls for sweeping reforms to China's political system, including an end to one-party rule.
His arrest on Tuesday was announced yesterday by the state Xinhua news agency, dealing a blow to supporters who had hoped for his release after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident on June 4.
"Liu has been engaged in agitation activities, such as spreading of rumours and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialist system in recent years," said Xinhua, citing a police statement.
He has confessed to the accusations, the statement added. The next step would be indictment and his lawyer said the charge could carry a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Dr Liu, 53, a former university professor, has been in police custody since December, just before the release of the Charter 08 manifesto, which called for, among other things, a new Constitution guaranteeing human rights, election of public officials, freedom of religion and expression, and an end to the CCP's hold over the military, courts and government.
Charter 08, which was inspired by Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 - a 1977 document pressing for democratisation during the Cold War - was initiated by more than 300 intellectuals. It has since obtained nearly 9,000 signatures through its circulation online.
Many of the signatories have been summoned by security forces for questioning, with Beijing University law professor He Weifang being transferred to a post in the far western Xinjiang region after signing the document.
But Dr Liu has been the only one detained and his formal arrest now will be a further deterrent to those who wish to press on with the Charter.
His detention had prompted human rights groups to demand his release.
It also drew international criticism, with the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi calling for his "immediate and unconditional release" earlier this month.
That followed a letter she wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao last month, also asking that Dr Liu and other Chinese "prisoners of conscience" be freed.
Dr Liu is the highest-profile dissident to be arrested since human rights activist Hu Jia was detained last year before the Beijing Olympics. Hu was sentenced to 31/2 years in prison for sedition in April last year.
Since his "residential surveillance" in December, Dr Liu has not been able to contact anyone in the outside world and was allowed two meetings with his wife.
He is believed to be detained in an undisclosed inn on the outskirts of Beijing and spends most of his time reading and watching sports programmes on TV.
Human Rights Watch analyst Nicholas Bequelin told The Straits Times the arrest does not bode well for other intellectuals in China, as it indicates a "hardening of position by the CCP" towards dissent.
"Liu Xiaobo was the most prominent dissident, and there was an unspoken agreement that he was tolerated by the government for his writings and even giving interviews to foreign journalists," he added.
"If he can be arrested…the bar has been lowered. This was a test case for the relationship between the party and intellectuals here."
Dr Liu has long been a thorn in the Chinese government's flesh, spending 20 months in jail for being deeply involved in the June 4, 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square.
Since then, he has often published critical essays on overseas Chinese websites.
"In China's political system, intellectuals play a very important role and, after 1989, the party tried very hard to co-opt the intellectuals, including treating them well," said Mr Bequelin.
"Liu's arrest will have deep repercussions for all the public intellectuals in China," he added.