United Nations experts have called for the release of human rights activist Liu Xia, widow of late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, over concerns about her mental health. They urged China to allow her access to medical treatment at home or abroad.

Liu has been under de facto house arrest without charge since 2010. Her husband was jailed in 2008 for co-writing Charter 08 – a manifesto calling for democratic reform – and was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. He died last July from liver cancer while on medical parole.

Liu Xia
Photo: Amnesty International Youtube screenshot.

Liu reportedly takes medication for depression and underwent uterine fibroid surgery last year for benign muscular tumours in the wall of her uterus.

The coalition of experts said in a joint statement on Wednesday: “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.”

“We reiterate our call to the Chinese Government to disclose her whereabouts and release her,” they said.

The experts – from working groups on arbitrary detention, human rights defenders and enforced or involuntary disappearances – urged Chinese authorities to grant “immediate and unfettered” access to Liu, and that she be allowed to seek medical or psychological wherever she wishes.

‘A life sentence’

In an emotion phone call to her friend in June, Liu said: “[T]hey should add a line to the constitution: ‘Loving Liu Xiaobo is a serious crime — it’s a life sentence’… they are going to keep me here to serve out Xiaobo’s sentence.”

YouTube video

Liu faces daily restrictions on her movement and remains under surveillance, although Chinese authorities maintain that she is “free.” A Shenyang city official last year said that her rights and freedom are “protected under the law,” however she has not been seen in public since her husband’s funeral last year.

The UN experts said: “If Ms. Liu is free as she is said to be by the authorities, she should be allowed to peacefully to exercise her right to freedom of expression and movement.”

Liu said in a letter to the 2009 Nobel Literature Prize laureate Herta Mueller made public last year that she was “going mad” and compared her life in isolation to that of a plant.

UN human rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein met with Chinese officials last year to push for Liu’s release.

Liu’s detainment has prompted criticism from human rights groups and activists. China expert Jerome Cohen said that in the event of her death, sanctions should be placed on China by the international community for her “murder.”

NGO Amnesty International Researcher Patrick Poon told HKFP on Thursday: “We are extremely worried about Liu Xia’s situation. She has been under house arrest all these years just simply because she’s Liu Xiaobo’s wife. She has committed no crime. We echo the UN experts’ call to ask the Chinese government to allow Liu Xia to receive medical treatment wherever she wishes.”

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, Beijing has sought to crack down on dissent by detaining activists, including hundreds of lawyers in 2015 in what became known as the “709 crackdown.”

China Director of NGO Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson also told HKFP: “The UN experts’ statement on Liu Xia is a welcome—if grim—reminder of Beijing’s audacious abuses. It’s critical for prominent voices to explicitly call Beijing’s bluff that Liu Xia is somehow free. Her release will only come when Beijing believes the price of holding her is higher than the price of letting her go, and UN statements help alter that calculation.”

Next Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.