Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident imprisoned since 2009, has been released from confinement on medical parole, but his supporters are pressing for him to be allowed to seek treatment abroad for liver cancer.
Liu, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in absentia in 2010, was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer on May 23, and is being treated at a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang, according to his lawyers and Chinese prison officials. Chinese law forbids any prisoner released on medical parole from traveling abroad, said Liu's lawyer, Mo Shaoping.
"He cannot go and receive medical treatment in a hospital abroad that is not within the prison administration system," Mo told VOA.
From Oslo, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it was delighted to learn the 61-year-old dissident has been released from prison, but that the news from China came "with a mixture of relief and deep worry." The committee called for Liu's release "without conditions" and said he should be allowed to go abroad for treatment if he wishes.
U.S. appeals for mercy
Senior officials at the U.S. State Department in Washington said they were working to gather more information about Liu's medical and legal status, but called on authorities in Beijing to allow Liu and his wife to seek medical treatment wherever they wish.
"We call on the Chinese authorities to not only to release Mr. Liu, but also to allow his wife, Ms. Liu Xia, out of house arrest, and provide them the protections and freedoms, such as freedom of movement and access to medical care of his choosing, to which they're entitled under China's constitution and legal system and international commitments," said Anna Richey-Allen, a spokeswoman for the State Department's East Asia and Pacific Bureau.
Liu's attorney Mo said there are multiple petition campaigns on the internet calling on the Chinese government to allow Liu to go abroad for treatment, even if that requires making an exception to customary legal procedures.
Another lawyer on Liu's team, Shang Baojun, told VOA that Liu's family has visited him at China Medical University Affiliated Hospital No. 1 in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, but it remains unclear whether his wife, Liu Xia, was allowed to see him. The dissident's legal team said she has not been heard from for some time.
The Liaoning Prison Administrative Bureau reported Liu was on medical parole and was being treated by eight cancer specialists, but gave no further details.
Supporters blame Chinese authorities
News of Liu's deteriorating health drew immediate and passionate reactions from his supporters and human-rights groups worldwide.
"The Chinese government's culpability for wrongfully imprisoning Liu Xiaobo is deepened by the fact that they released him only when he became gravely ill," Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement emailed to reporters.
"Liu Xiaobo has fought a relentless struggle in favor of democracy and human rights in China and has already paid a heavy price for his involvement," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. "He was, essentially, convicted for exercising his freedom of speech and should never have been sentenced to jail in the first place.
"Chinese authorities carry a heavy responsibility," the Nobel committee said, "if Liu ... has been denied necessary medical treatment."
Chinese human-rights activist Hu Jia, a winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, told VOA that the long prison term handed down to Liu was a psychological and physical punishment akin to a politically motivated murder.
'A kind of murder'
Hu, with Liu, was a cosigner of Charter 08, which called for reforming China's government.
The government "claimed Liu's condition was good … but suddenly states that he has terminal liver cancer," Hu noted. "What can I say? This is a kind of murder. A cold-blooded government regime is trying to escape its responsibility, so it declares medical parole."
He appealed to the government to allow Liu treatment at the best hospitals in Beijing.
"Nazi Germany didn't let a single Nobel Prize winner die in any Nazi prison," tweeted Gao Yu, a dissident journalist who was released from prison on medical parole in 2015 after being convicted of leaking state secrets.
"It's favoring Chinese communists to compare them with the Nazis," an anonymous netizen responded to Gao. "Because in front of Chinese communists, Nazis would be like angels."
Liu, imprisoned in 2009 for an 11-year term for advocating democracy, was unable to collect his Nobel Prize in Oslo in 2010, nor was his family allowed to collect it for him. He was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair.
The Nobel committee's citation paid tribute to "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." The Chinese government responded at the time that he was a criminal.
Liu has been involved in pro-democracy movements since the June Fourth Incident, as China calls the bloody Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, for which an official death toll has never been released. Liu urged protesting students to leave rather than face the army.
He was arrested in 1991 for Tiananmen-related activity but released without charges. Five years later, he was sentenced to three years of "re-education through labor" for advocating for the release of those imprisoned after Tiananmen Square.
In 2008 Liu participated in drafting Charter 08, which was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The authors called for reforms, including a new constitution, to protect human rights, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and constitutional rule. Most famously, Charter 08 declared that while China has many laws, it lacks the rule of law.
Liu was put on trial for subversion, and the international community has been calling for his release since his sentencing.
Cara Song contributed to this report, which was first published by VOA Mandarin.