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Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was released from a Chinese jail with cancer

Amnesty International accused Beijing of “new-depths of cruelty” for preventing him from receiving medical care.

An image of Liu Xiaobo hangs on a wall and a silhouette of a man is in front of it.
A photo of Liu Xiaobo displayed at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner, pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, was temporarily released from jail to be treated for late-stage liver cancer last month. But time is running out for Liu, 61, according to Amnesty International.

The human rights organization accused Beijing of “new-depths of cruelty” for prohibiting Liu from receiving treatment for his terminal illness and for keeping his wife Liu Xia under house arrest.

“It is not too late for the authorities to end this cruel farce. They must let Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, travel abroad to get the medical treatment he so desperately needs,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in a press release.

Amid growing pressure from foreign governments and human rights organizations, on Wednesday, Chinese authorities invited foreign doctors and medical experts from the United States and Germany to help treat Liu, reported the South China Morning Post.

He has been hospitalized in Shenyang, the capital city of China’s Northeast Liaoning Province, and his lawyer said last month that Liu’s condition is deteriorating quickly.

“It seems to be very serious, very serious,” said Shang Baojun, Liu’s lawyer, according to the New York Times. “If it was an early stage of cancer, then that would be easier to treat. But at this late stage, the treatment seems much more difficult.”

The news of his medical condition is prompting calls from his supporters and human rights organizations asking for his permanent release and criticizing the Chinese government for detaining him in the first place. He was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for helping write a pro-democracy petition.

Who is Liu Xiaobo?

Liu has been fighting for a more open and democratic China since working as a key leader during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. A professor of comparative literature at Beijing Normal University, Liu protested alongside his students.

In 1989, thousands of Chinese students and protestors demonstrated for weeks in Tiananmen Square calling for democratic reform. On June 4, Chinese troops entered the square and massacred demonstrators. The official death toll is unknown, but estimates range from several hundred to thousands of people killed. As many as 10,000 people were arrested during and after the protests.

During the protests, Liu played an active role in starting a hunger strike and negotiating a peaceful retreat from the square. For his role, he was sentenced for two years in prison, according to the New York Times.

But Liu soon found himself in government crosshairs again. In 2009, he was given an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” after helping write a petition in 2008 calling for political change and supporting democracy. The authors and signatories to the petition, known as Charter 8, hoped that it would become a blueprint for political change and sought to promote democratization and protection of human rights in China.

Liu gained enormous notice throughout the world in 2010 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” That decision prompted years of strained diplomatic ties between Norway and an outraged China furious about the choice.

The Chinese government refused to release Liu from prison to attend the ceremony in Norway and prevented his family from accepting the award on his behalf. So the award was presented to an empty chair.

A man sits next to an empty chair with a photo of Liu Xiaobo in the background
The empty chair representing Liu Xiaobo at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
HEIKO JUNGE/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his wife and fellow poet, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest as a part of the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent. Liu has been under tight surveillance and largely isolated, despite not being charged for a crime.

Liu’s supporters are using his release to bash Beijing

On Monday, the Independent Chinese PEN, a nonprofit organization promoting freedom of speech that Liu once ran, released a statement on its Facebook page after Liu’s medical condition was publicized calling for his unconditional release from prison:

We call on the Chinese government to immediately provide Liu Xiaobo with the best possible medical care, and release him unconditionally.

At a time when China wants to have a greater international role, it is only fitting that it should show humanity and compassion towards a man who has never committed any violent crime, but has dedicated his life to literature and free expression.

In a statement, Amnesty International’s China researcher Patrick Poon said, “it adds injury to insult that Liu Xiaobo, who should never have been put in prison in the first place, has been diagnosed with a grave illness.” Poon also called for the Chinese authorities to release Liu Xia from house arrest.

Two exiled student leaders from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest also posted a statement on their Facebook page this morning, calling on the Chinese government to provide comprehensive medical care for Liu.

“We take this opportunity to express our reaffirmation of the fact that the Chinese government deliberately sentenced him to death over the past nine years of the sentence he has served due simply to his outspoken thinking,” said Wu’er Kaixi and Wang Dan in a statement. “We protest this with anger and in the strongest possible terms.”