6 months on, no news of Nobel winner Liu

2011-04-08 13:01

Beijing - Six months after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is still imprisoned, deprived of family visits and his wife is under house arrest. No one is even sure where he is.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee sparked fury in Beijing on October 8 when it honoured the now 55-year-old writer, jailed for 11 years on subversion charges, for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China".

Liu, who until then was little known abroad, became a global cause celebre overnight as Western nations and rights groups lined up to call for his release. For China's communist leaders, he became an instant object of scorn.

Since that time, and as Beijing pursues a crackdown on dissent, notably with the recent detention of celebrated artist Ai Weiwei, no news has filtered out about Liu - not even if he is still being held in a prison in northeast China.

"We've had no news at all," Renee Xia, the international director of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders activist network, said - just "two rumours that cannot be independently verified".

The first of those rumours was that Liu has been transferred out of the remote Jinzhou prison in the northeastern province of Liaoning and placed under house arrest at an unknown location.

Xia noted: "That tweet was not recognisable and was quickly removed."

The second, included in an April 1 message sent on Twitter by activist Mo Zhixu, was that Liu would be granted medical parole. But others later poured cold water on that story, calling it a bad April Fool's joke.

Liver problems

"He is in jail incommunicado, which means nobody knows exactly where he is or anything about him - this is worrying," Xia said.

Liu suffers from liver problems and "his family does not know if he is getting any treatment", she added.

Human Rights Watch campaigner Nicholas Bequelin however said there was "no reason for Liu to have been moved", adding: "His Nobel prize means that he probably gets better treatment than the average inmate."

The former university professor was sentenced on Christmas Day 2009 after co-authoring Charter 08, a bold petition calling for political reform in one-party Communist-ruled China.

He is one of only three people to win the Peace Prize while in prison, after 1991 laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who was in a Nazi jail when he won in 1935.

Liu has reportedly been denied family visits since his wife Liu Xia went to see him shortly after the Nobel committee announced its decision.

Liu Xia has since been under house arrest at the couple's apartment in Beijing. She was able to express her pride - and grief - to journalists by telephone and Twitter for about a week. Since then, there has been no word.

Lawyer in the dark

"This is a unique situation in Nobel peace prize history, the fact that the wife of a laureate has disappeared this way and without any charges against her," Bequelin said.

Calls to the Jinzhou prison, the provincial justice ministry and to the national justice ministry's press department went unanswered on Friday.

Liu's lawyer Shang Baojun said he was completely in the dark.

"We have had no news of Liu Xiaobo, or of Liu Xia," Shang said.

The attorney said he had been in contact with Liu's younger brother Liu Xiaoxuan, who said on Friday he was unable to speak in depth with the foreign media at present.

"They have been applying to visit Liu Xiaobo. But there have been no visits," Shang said.

More arrests

"Not allowing prison visits to Liu Xiaobo and placing Liu Xia under house detention are violations of the law. But there is nothing we can do about it."

The increasingly tense climate in China amid the crackdown on dissidents, activists and rights lawyers - scores of whom have been rounded up in recent weeks - leaves those close to Liu with little hope of any breakthrough.

"Now that Ai Weiwei has been arrested, it would surprise me if Liu Xiaobo were released," Jean-Philippe Beja, a France-based China expert and a close friend of Liu, said.

The Hong Kong-based Xia agreed there was little hope of Liu being freed "any time soon", noting: "The government is continuing to arrest more people and charging them with the same crime for which Liu Xiaobo was sentenced."

She said the global spotlight shining on Ai, now under investigation for suspected "economic crimes", would not hurt Liu as the attention helped underline that the government is "so abusive and violating its own laws".

Beja said he hoped that foreign governments and rights groups would keep pressuring Beijing on Liu's behalf, but Bequelin was more pessimistic, saying there was "little appetite among those governments to push for Liu's release".