China steps up action over Nobel


China today blocked European diplomats from meeting the wife of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and cut off her phone in anger over the award.

As China retaliated, UN human rights experts called on Beijing to free imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, who was permitted a brief, tearful meeting with his wife yesterday.

Mr Liu dedicated the award to the “lost souls” of the 1989 military crackdown on student demonstrators.

Mr 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 honoured his 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 honouring Mr Liu, calling him a criminal and warning Norway’s government that relations would suffer, even though the Nobel committee is an independent organisation.

Today, it abruptly cancelled a meeting that had been scheduled for Wednesday between visiting Norwegian fisheries minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen and her Chinese counterpart.

“If the meeting has been cancelled due to the Peace Prize, we find that to be an unnecessary reaction from China,” said a spokeswoman for Norway’s Foreign Ministry. “We have not received any reason for cancelling the meeting. We regret that a meeting concerning cooperation within fishery, which is important for both parties, have been cancelled.”

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama today offered his congratulations to Mr Liu Xiaobo for winning the prize and called on the Chinese government to release him and other jailed activists.

"Awarding the Peace Prize to him is the international community's recognition of the increasing voices among the Chinese people in pushing China towards political, legal and constitutional reforms," the Dalai Lama said in a statement on his website. "I believe in the years ahead, future generations of Chinese will be able to enjoy the fruits of the efforts that the current Chinese citizens are making towards responsible governance.”

Beijing was furious when the Dalai Lama won his Peace Prize in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Also today, four UN human rights experts released a statement calling for China to immediately release Mr Liu.

The independent UN-appointed investigators say he is “a courageous human rights defender who has continuously and peacefully advocated for greater respect for human rights” in China.

Frank La Rue, El Hadji Malick Sow, Margaret Sekaggya and Gabriela Knaul - who examine issues ranging from breaches of the right to free speech to arbitrary detention - called on China to release Liu and “all persons detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

European diplomats meanwhile were prevented from visiting Mr Liu’s wife, 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, Human Rights in China 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.

He 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 Mrs 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,” Mr Sharpe said.

He read out a statement from European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso that said the decision to award Mr 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.”

Liu Xia has said via Twitter that she has been unable to make phone calls.

The Beijing public security bureau and the foreign ministry would not comment on why they were apparently restricting the movements of Liu Xia, who has not been charged with anything. But “soft detention” is a common tactic used by the Chinese government to intimidate and muffle activists and critics.