On anniversary of Liu Xiaobo's death, calls echo for wife's release

Beijing (dpa) - As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is set to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his latest trip to Germany on Monday, the event will be overshadowed by the upcoming anniversary of dissident Liu Xiaobo's death and calls by Germany and the United States to allow his widow, Liu Xia, to leave China.

Liu Xiaobo, China's first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, died on July 13 at age 61 of advanced liver cancer. He was in the middle of serving an 11-year prison sentence, which was handed down for his role in co-organizing 2008's "Charter 08" a pro-democracy manifesto for China.

"What he left us was a real person. It is not easy to be a real person in China. He never concealed his fears and cowardice," recalled human rights activist Hu Jia, who described close friend Liu Xiaobo as "courageous."

"It's not called courage being not afraid, but continuing to move forward while feeling afraid," Hu said. "He was increasingly aware of the power of the authorities and the unscrupulous measures used by the authorities ... [but] he did not think that he was guilty and did not plead guilty for some freedom. This was really not easy."

Liu Xiaobo left behind a successful life of academia in the United States to participate in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement  in 1989, for which he served a two-year prison sentence, according to his official Nobel Prize biography. Subsequent activism led to house arrest, and then in 1996 he was sentenced to three years of hard labour, during which time he married Liu Xia, another dissident and artist.

In 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." He followed in the footsteps of Aung San Suu Kyi and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky by winning the prize while still in prison and was unable to attend the Nobel ceremony.

His win, however, put him even more directly in the cross hairs of the Communist Party, according to Hu. "The authorities believed it made a strong future political opponent," Hu said. "When you win the Nobel Peace Prize, it may give you an acceleration, letting you have the moral power to form a political power."

It may be one reason why Liu Xiaobo was barred from seeking cancer treatment abroad and was released from prison just weeks before his death.

Mourned around the world, his death was highly censored in China, as his first memorial is expected to be as well. Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said shortly after Liu Xiaobo's death a number of his supporters were detained for up to one month and released "pending trial," a measure he said was intended to silence them.

"After one year it is unclear if they can still speak much on him. I think some people who are still very brave, they may make some kind of gesture online on social media paying tribute to Liu Xiaobo and expressing concern for Liu Xia."

Liu Xia, 57, has been under house arrest since 2010, shortly after her husband won the Nobel Prize, and has had limited contact with friends and family ever since, according to rights groups. She has expressed a desire to leave China and in May, Germany's Foreign Ministry said Liu Xia was "welcome at any time."

The Beijing government, however, has been slow to move, which Poon said was a bid to silence her.

Recent reports indicate that her mental health has begun to deteriorate, according to the United Nations, which last week called on the Chinese government to release her. They cited several audio recordings made by Liu Xia in which she sounded deeply distressed.

Amnesty International reported that Liu Xia told a friend in Germany in April, "If I can't leave, I'll die in my home. Xiaobo is gone, and there's nothing for me now. It's easier to die than live. Using death to defy could not be any simpler for me."

Liu Xia has applied to leave China, according to friends, although Hu said it was unlikely to occur before August, if at all.

Another close friend of Liu Xia, however, told dpa he was more hopeful. "I am clearly more optimistic that it will happen this summer," he said.

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