GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. human rights experts urged China on Wednesday to release Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, and allow her to seek treatment for deteriorating health, including travel abroad.
The appeal came nearly a year after Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer on July 13, 2017 while in custody, having been jailed in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power”.
Liu Xia, an artist and poet who suffers from depression, has been under effective house arrest since her husband won the prize in 2010. She has never been charged with any crime, and was last seen in public at his funeral accompanied by Chinese authorities.
“We are disturbed by reports of the deteriorating health of Liu Xia. She is reportedly physically restricted at an unknown location and suffers from severe psychological distress,” U.N.
independent experts on enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and human rights defenders said in a joint statement.
“We reiterate our call to the Chinese government to disclose her whereabouts and release her.”China has repeatedly said Liu Xia is free and is accorded all rights guaranteed to her by Chinese law.
However, Beijing-based Western diplomats have said she has been closely monitored by Chinese authorities since her husband’s death and has only been able to meet and speak to friends and family in pre-arranged phone calls and visits.
She was losing hope of leaving the country, a friend who spoke to her by telephone said in May.
In Beijing on Thursday, a foreign ministry spokesman said, “Liu Xia is a Chinese citizen. China protects the rights of Chinese citizens, in accordance with the law.”
“When it comes to her health, China’s government cares more for the health of Chinese citizens than any person from any other country,” the spokesman, Lu Kang, told reporters.
In the past, China has allowed dissidents to leave and take up residence in a willing Western nation.
But President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2013, has presided over a sweeping campaign to quash dissent, detaining hundreds of rights activists and lawyers, with dozens jailed.
The U.N. experts voiced alarm at “the growing trend of deaths in custody in China” – which have included those of activist Cao Shunli in 2014 and Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in 2016.
In a speech last month, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, accused China of preventing independent activists from testifying before U.N. rights bodies. He voiced concern that conditions were “fast deteriorating” in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
“A number of Chinese human rights lawyers are in detention or simply disappeared,” Alim Seytoff, director of the Uighur service at Radio Free Asia, said at a panel last week.
“The situation of freedom of expression of Uighurs in the northwest of China is even worse.”
China, responding to “unfounded accusations” by Western states at the U.N. Human Rights Council, said last week it encouraged activists but “does not allow any organization or individual to engage in subversive or destabilizing activities using the pretext of protecting rights or freedom of speech.”
“Meanwhile, the government is cracking down on ethnic separatists and violent terrorists’ activities to safeguard national security and protect people’s lives and property,” Chinese diplomat Jiang Yingfeng told the forum.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by Toby Chopra and Clarence Fernandez