By Emily Rauhala and Simon Denyer,
BEIJING— China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner and most famous dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was released Monday from prison on medical grounds to treat his advanced liver cancer, his lawyer told The Washington Post.
Liu, 61, who participated in the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations, became the first citizen of the People’s Republic of China to win the Nobel Prize in 2010 for advocating greater freedoms in his country — and is the only laureate currently serving a prison sentence.
He was arrrested in 2008 and subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and has been held incommunicado since — in hopes of erasing any memory of him say colleagues and rights activists.
“Liu was diagnosed with liver cancer on May 23, and the parole application was approved last week,” said his Lawyer Mo Shaoping. “He is now in a hospital in Shenyang. Some family members have already visited him.”
Many, however, weren’t even aware he was sick.
“We are shocked and devastated to learn that our dear friend and mentor Liu Xiaobo, China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been suffering from cancer in China’s brutal prison environment,” said a statement by Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan, former student leaders from 1989 and his friends. “Liu Xiaobo was an important partner in our democratic movement of 1989. He was — and continues to be — our personal mentor. We are convinced that his strength and optimism will make it possible for him to overcome the disease.”
In its daily briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no information on the matter.
In 2010 when he won the Nobel Prize while in prison, his family was prevented from traveling to Norway to accept the award. His wife Liu Xia has also been under house arrest since. The award was presented to an empty chair, which later became a symbol of China’s repression.
“Adding injury to insult, Liu Xiaobo has been diagnosed with a grave illness in prison, where he should never have been put in the first place,” said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International. “The Chinese authorities should immediately ensure that Liu Xiaobo receives adequate medical care, effective access to his family and that he and all others imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights are immediately and unconditionally released.”
Liu was arrested in 2008 for his role in the writing of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for China’s democratic transition that was signed by thousands of people inside the country.
His publications have since been banned in China.
When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the prize in 2010, they cited “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Beijing condemned the award and relations with Norway suffered for years.
Rose Tang, who was a student in Tiananmen Square in 1989, said Liu had been one of the last hunger strikers in the square on June 4, and had played a key role in negotiating safe passage for students out of there.
Liu had been a fellow at Columbia University when the protests erupted and had flown back specially to be with the students.
Tang, who now lives in Brooklyn, recalls how he sent a fellow protest leader to negotiate with troops to allow the students to leave, potentially saving the lives of up to 2,000 people.
“Bullets were flying over our heads and some students (including me) wanted to stay and fight till the end,” she said. “Student leaders were disputing among themselves. Liu and his fellow hunger strikers made the crucial decision.”
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, said that while it was a relief he had been released, she feared little had really changed.
“That he was ever in prison at all says all one needs to know about Chinese leaders’ profound hostility toward peaceful expression and the rule of law,” she said. “It appears highly unlikely that his release will equal real freedom — for him, or for all others who simply seek peaceful, positive change in China.”
Denyer reported from Seoul. Luna Lin in Beijing and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.