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China stops EU envoys from meeting Liu's wife

China on Monday blocked European diplomats from meeting with the wife of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and cut off her phone communication.
Simon Sharpe
Simon Sharpe, the European Union's first secretary of political affairs in China, left, talks to journalists Monday after he was prevented from entering a residential compound in Beijing where Liu Xia, the wife of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, is being held under house arrest.Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: news services

China on Monday blocked European diplomats from meeting with the wife of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner, cut off her phone communication and canceled meetings with Norwegian officials — acting on its fury over the award.

As China retaliated, U.N. human rights experts called on Beijing to free imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, who was permitted a brief, tearful meeting with his wife Sunday. Liu dedicated the award to the "lost souls" of the 1989 military crackdown on student demonstrators.

Liu, a slight, 54-year-old literary critic, is in the second year of an 11-year prison term for inciting subversion.

In naming him, the Norwegian-based Nobel committee honored Liu's more than two decades of advocacy of human rights and peaceful democratic change — from demonstrations for democracy at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 to a manifesto for political reform that he co-authored in 2008 and which led to his latest jail term.

Beijing had reacted angrily to Friday's announcement honoring Liu, calling him a criminal.

The China Daily, one of the government's main English-language mouthpieces, said the award was "part of the plot to contain China." The Nobel exposed "the deep and wide ideological rift between this country and the West," said the paper.

On Monday, China abruptly canceled a meeting that had been scheduled for Wednesday between visiting Norwegian Fisheries Minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen and her Chinese counterpart. Berg-Hansen was in China for a weeklong visit to the World Expo in Shanghai.

China had warned Norway's government that relations would suffer, even though the Nobel committee is an independent organization.

"If the meeting has been canceled due to the Peace Prize, we find that to be an unnecessary reaction from China," said Norway's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ragnhild Imerslund. "We have not received any reason for canceling the meeting."

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama criticized China for its response to the Nobel Peace Prize award, saying the government "must change," the Kyodo News agency reported. The Tibetan spiritual leader, who won the prize himself in 1989, said Beijing must recognize that fostering an open society is "the only way to save all people of China."

Also Monday, four U.N. human rights experts released a statement calling for China to immediately release Liu.

UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group, welcomed the call from the four U.N. experts and urged U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay to echo their appeal for Liu's release.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said statements by Ban and Pillay on Friday "glaringly omitted to call for the dissident's release, or even to say a word about the fact that he is currently in prison."

Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky, asked Monday whether the secretary-general thought China should release Liu from jail, said "the secretary-general has stated his views in his statement already." Pressed on whether Ban's views on human rights included not annoying an important U.N. member state, Nesirky gave the same reply.

In Friday's statement, Nesirky said Ban reiterated the importance of human rights but also praised China's "remarkable economic advances" and "broadened political participation." He said the U.N. chief also expressed hope "that any differences on this decision will not detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally or the high prestige and inspirational power of the award."

European diplomats, meanwhile, were prevented from visiting Liu's wife, Liu Xia, who has been living under house arrest since Friday. Liu Xia has been told that if she wants to leave her home she must be escorted in a police car, the New York-based group Human Rights in China said.

She reported that her phone communications, along with her Internet, has been cut off; both her and her brother's mobile phones have been interfered with, HRIC said. She is not being allowed to contact the media or her friends, the group said.

Simon Sharpe, the first secretary of political affairs of the EU delegation in China, said he wanted to see Liu Xia at her home in Beijing to personally deliver a letter of congratulations on the peace award from the president of the European Commission.

'A strong message of support'
Sharpe was accompanied by diplomats from about 10 embassies, including Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy and Australia.

But three uniformed guards at the main gate of Liu's apartment complex prevented the group from entering, saying someone from inside the building had to come out and fetch them.

"We were told that we could only go in if we called somebody from the inside and if they came out to meet us. But of course, we can't call Liu Xia, because it's impossible to get through to her phone," Sharpe told reporters at the entrance to the compound.

Sharpe read out a message from Jose Manuel Barroso that said the decision to award Liu the peace prize was "a strong message of support to all those around the world who sometimes with great personal sacrifice are struggling for freedom and human rights."

The Nobel Committee has sent the official prize documents, including an invitiation to the Dec. 10 ceremony, to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo, asking Chinese authorities to hand them over to Liu, said committee secretary Geir Lundestad.

The Beijing public security bureau and the foreign ministry had no immediate comment on why authorities were apparently restricting her movements since she has not been charged with anything. But "soft detention" is a common tactic used by the Chinese government to intimidate and stifle activists and critics.

In recent days, Beijing has also stepped up its harassment of other activists, detaining several when they tried to organize a dinner to celebrate Liu's Nobel.

Rights groups have also reported that other activists and dissidents have been detained since the prize was announced.

Many signatories of the "Charter 08" petition that called for sweeping political reforms have either been locked away, put under house arrest or otherwise harassed.

Popular online Chinese portals such as search engine Baidu have disabled searches for Liu's name.

In Hong Kong, which enjoys considerable freedoms as a special administrative territory of China, a small group of protesters demanding Liu's release gathered outside the liaison office that represents Beijing.

"The authoritarian regime can either go down in history or they have to transform themselves in a peaceful and orderly manner," pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho said.