BEIJING (AP) — Liu Xia trembled uncontrollably and cried as she explained that she never expected Chinese authorities would hold her under house arrest for more than two years after her jailed activist husband, Liu Xiaobo, was chosen to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Breathless from disbelief at receiving unexpected visitors into her home and with a shaking voice, Liu Xia told The Associated Press in her first interview in more than two years, that her ongoing house arrest has been a painfully surreal experience. She said she has been confined to her duplex apartment in downtown Beijing with no Internet or outside phone line and only allowed weekly trips to buy groceries and visit her parents.
Once a month, she is taken to see her husband who is four years into an 11-year prison term for subversion for authoring and disseminating a sweeping call for democratic reform known as Charter ’08.
The Nobel committee cited the charter and his two decades of non-violent struggle for civil rights in awarding him the peace prize, a decision that brought furious condemnation from Beijing.
It wasn’t clear when Liu Xia started regular visits with her husband or if they would continue following her interview. She was denied visits for more than a year after she saw him two days after his Nobel win and emerged to tell the world that he had dedicated the award to those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
Liu Xia said has been blindsided by her own long months of detention and never imagined house arrest would go on for as long as it has.
“I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize. But after he won the prize, I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.”
The authoritarian government’s detention of the couple, one in a prison 280 miles (450 kilometers) northeast of Beijing and the other in a fifth floor apartment, underscores its determination to keep the 57-year-old laureate from becoming an inspiration to other Chinese, either by himself or through her.
Her treatment has been called by rights groups the most severe retaliation by a government given to a Nobel winner’s family.
During a rare phone interview with the AP a few days after the award was announced, Liu Xia sounded hopeful her confinement would be brief: “I’m sure that for a moment the pressure will be greater, I will have even less freedom, even more inconvenience, but I believe they won’t go on like this forever and that there will be positive change in the future.”
But that has not happened. The Foreign Ministry this week reiterated its position that Liu is a convicted criminal and that giving him the peace prize represented “external interference in China’s judicial sovereignty and domestic affairs.”
China’s fury with Nobel was this year replaced with jubilation and pride when another Chinese national, the writer Mo Yan, was named as the winner of the committee’s literature prize.
“We live in such an absurd place,” Liu Xia said, when asked to comment on the sharply divergent responses Beijing has given to the two awards. “It is so absurd.”
Two years ago this coming Monday, the Nobel committee held Liu Xiaobo’s award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, with an empty chair on stage to mark his absence. The Chinese government kept Liu Xia and other activists from attending and pressured foreign diplomats to stay away. For a time, the empty chair became a symbol of support for Liu on the Internet.
This week, attention turns again to another Nobel awards ceremony, this one is Stockholm, Sweden, where the shadow of Liu Xiaobo is expected to hang over Mo’s moment of glory.
A prolific writer of raw and magical fiction centered on rural Chinese life, Mo’s stories are often savagely critical of officials but he has faced criticism for not being a more outspoken defendant of freedom of speech and for being a member of the Communist Party-backed writers’ association.
When asked about Liu at a meeting with reporters after being named literature prize winner in October, Mo said he hoped for his early release, but did not push the issue.
Other Nobel laureates have been more outspoken. An appeal this week by 134 Nobel laureates, from peace prize winners like South African Archbishiop Desmond Tutu to Taiwanese-American chemist Yuan T. Lee, called the Lius’ detention a violation of international law and urged their immediate release.
“This flagrant violation of the basic right to due process and free expression must be publicly and forcefully confronted by the international community,” said the laureates’ appeal.
Dressed in a track suit and slippers, Liu was visibly shaken to find several Associated Press journalists at her door. Her first reaction was to put her hands to her head and ask several times, “How did you manage to come up, how did you manage?”
The guards who keep 24-hour watch on the main entrance of Liu’s building had left their station — a cot with blankets where they sit and sleep — and apparently stepped out to lunch.
Liu appeared frail and explained that she has a back injury that frequently keeps her confined to bed. Her hair was shaved close to her head, a severe look that she has worn since before her husband was jailed for inciting subversion in 2009.
A poet, photographer and painter, Liu said she spends her time reading and sometimes painting. She last saw her husband a few weeks ago and said he was in good health but she couldn’t recall the exact date of the visit.
“I can’t remember,” she said. “I don’t keep track of the days anymore. That’s how it is.”
Until Thursday’s unexpected interview, the last images of Liu were released in October by the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, which didn’t say how it obtained them. The grainy video showed a lone woman smoking by her apartment window at night.
So total has been the authorities’ suppression that little word of her situation or of her husband’s condition have leaked out in the past two years. Rights activists have said that Liu Xia’s silence was likely the price of regular visits with Liu Xiaobo in Jinzhou Prison, northeast of Beijing.
Though she is forbidden to discuss the specifics of her situation with her husband, Liu Xia says he knows that she is also under detention.
“He understands more or less,” she said. “I told him: ‘I am going through what you are going through almost.’”
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