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Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo just died in Chinese custody

Two women hold a black and white portrait of Liu Xiaobo
Demonstrators hold up a portrait of Liu Xiaobo at a 2010 protest in Taiwan.
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most famous pro-democracy advocates and political prisoners, just died in Chinese custody at a hospital. He was 61.

Liu was moved from prison, where he was serving an 11-year sentence for calling for democracy in China, to a hospital last month. There, he was under constant surveillance by Chinese authorities and was being treated for late-stage liver cancer, but his condition quickly declined. He died of multiple organ failure on Thursday morning, according to the Associated Press. He is the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in state custody since the days of Nazi Germany.

“Despite the tragedy that Liu’s freedom has come from his death, it is clear today that the Chinese government has lost,” said Jared Genser, a US lawyer representing Liu as his international counsel, in an emailed statement. “Liu’s ideas and his dreams will persist, spread, and will, one day, come to fruition.”

Liu Xiaobo stood for a more democratic China

Liu fought for a more open and democratic China years after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, clamping down on free expression. He became renowned throughout the world for his leadership role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and for helping write a petition in 2008, Charter 08, calling for political change and supporting democracy.

A professor of comparative literature at Beijing Normal University, Liu protested alongside his students at Tiananmen. 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.

For his role, Liu was sentenced for two years in prison, according to the New York Times.

Later in 2009, Liu was given an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” after helping write Charter 08, which called for reform of China’s one-party government and an emphasis on freedom of expression. The authors and signatories to the petition hoped that it would become a blueprint for political change and sought to promote democratization and protection of human rights in China.

In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” 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 Xia has been under tight surveillance and largely isolated, despite not being charged for a crime.

Liu was China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner, and now he’s the second laureate to die in state custody. Carl von Ossietzky, who won the prize in 1935 for opposing Nazism, was the first laureate to die in German state custody in 1938.

“That’s not a comparison that Beijing wants to see,” said Bill Bishop, the author of a China-focused newsletter, Sinocism, in an interview.

Liu’s illness sparked calls from world leaders and activists for his release

After Liu was moved to the hospital last month, world leaders, including the US ambassador to China, and activists worldwide called for Liu’s release on humanitarian grounds. He and his wife, Liu Xia, had wanted to travel abroad for treatment, but Chinese authorities declined those requests.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged China’s leaders to show some “humanity.” 154 Nobel laureates released a letter asking the Chinese government to let Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, travel abroad. The president of Taiwan tweeted her support on Wednesday. The British embassy and the EU delegation in Beijing also joined the calls.

Now the world is mourning his death.

“Mr. Liu dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a statement. He also asked the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to leave China if she wishes.

Human rights organizations also shared their condolences. “Today we grieve the loss of a giant of human rights,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in a statement. “Liu Xiaobo was a man of fierce intellect, principle, wit and above all humanity.”

On Twitter, supporters are sharing quotes from his final statement read in a court before he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He hasn’t been heard publicly since. Here’s part of his final statement:

For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.