Berlin (AFP) – Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel dissident Liu Xiaobo who had been under de facto house arrest in China, left the country Tuesday and arrived in Germany.
Despite facing no charges, the 57-year-old poet had endured heavy restrictions on her movements since 2010 when her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize — an award that infuriated Beijing.
After being allowed to leave Beijing, Liu flew via Helsinki to Berlin, where she arrived just days before the first anniversary of her husband’s death from liver cancer.
She landed at Berlin’s Tegel airport at about 1500 GMT and quickly boarded a black van, without speaking to several dozen waiting journalists or activists holding “Welcome Liu Xia” signs.
Berlin-based dissident Liao Yiwu, who was also at the airport to greet Liu, had earlier voiced his joy on Twitter, saying: “I am so, so, so happy! Finally, finally, Xia is coming today!!”
Liu had become a cause celebre and was seen as a test case for China’s attitude to human rights, with activists and foreign powers urging Beijing to allow her to leave the country.
Her husband Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, died last year while serving an 11-year jail sentence for “subversion”, the first Nobel laureate to die in custody since the Nazi era.
In an emotional phone call with her friend Liao recently, Liu said, “they should add a line to the constitution: ‘Loving Liu Xiaobo is a serious crime — it’s a life sentence’.”
– ‘Very severe’ depression –
Speaking to AFP before her departure, close friend Ye Du said Liu was suffering from “very severe” depression, adding she would “sometimes faint” and was taking medicine to sleep.
“I can’t fall asleep. Only by taking medication can I fall asleep and stop looking at this painful world,” she said, according to Ye.
Another friend who has spoken to her several times said she was in “bad shape, physically and psychologically.”
She was finally given a passport last week, this friend, who did not wish to be named, told AFP.
Chinese authorities had consistently maintained Liu was free but imposed severe restrictions on her movement and she was under constant surveillance.
In May, several foreign diplomats who tried to visit her at her apartment amid concerns over her health were denied access.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said that Liu’s travel to Germany for medical treatment was “of her own free will.”
Patrick Poon from Amnesty International said it was “really wonderful that Liu Xia is finally able to leave China after suffering so much all these years.”
However, Poon voiced concern for her brother Liu Hui who is still in China and said she “might not be able to speak much for fear of her brother’s safety”.
Liu was believed to be reluctant to leave China over her family’s safety.
In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists celebrated at a memorial to Liu Xiaobo adorned with the couple’s pictures.
“I’m in a sea of joy,” said veteran activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung as he drank a toast to her.
– ‘Petty, cruel and vindictive’ –
At Liu’s Beijing apartment building on Tuesday, two men guarded the entrance and questioned anyone who came near while at least two others patrolled the park outside.
But despite heavy security, AFP gained access to her apartment on Monday, and saw little sign she was preparing for an imminent departure. Liu declined to give a formal interview, citing fears for her younger brother.
Pictures of the couple in happier times lined the walls.
Liu’s departure came during a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin although a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman denied any “association or link between this incident and the visit.”
Merkel has spoken out frequently on Chinese human rights abuses and is believed to have pushed for Liu’s release during her May visit to Beijing, where she met the wives of detained human rights lawyers.
This was “obviously decisive,” said one friend.
Analysts, however, pointed to the upcoming anniversary of her husband’s death as a reason for the timing.
“Perhaps the Chinese government realised that as the anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death approaches, keeping his widow under house arrest simply shows the Chinese to be petty, cruel and vindictive — not the image it’s trying to project to the world,” said Elaine Pearson from Human Rights Watch.
Others said Beijing might be trying to curry favour with Western powers ahead of an EU-China summit next week, as both Europe and China fight trade battles with the United States.
A Western diplomat said: “It has to do with China’s image at a time when it is fighting a trade war with the United States.”
“China needs to let some steam off and it is conducting a charm offensive targeted at the rest of the world.”
But this does not herald an improvement in human rights, this diplomat said.
On the contrary, “we can see it is getting worse.”