As Liu Xiaobo braced for his verdict, the late Chinese democracy activist penned a moving statement declaring his love for his wife while telling his jailers: “I have no enemies.”
But the authorities were unmoved by the conciliatory words from a writer who had been a thorn in their side for years, and they sentenced him to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009 for “subversion”.
Liu’s punishment generated international condemnation and turned him into the living symbol of the Communist government’s intolerance for dissent until his death on Thursday at age 61.
Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year after his sentence, infuriating Chinese authorities, who kept him in custody even after he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in late May and taken from prison to a hospital.
At the December 2010 Nobel ceremony in Oslo, his statement titled “I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement” was read by an actress, with an empty chair representing the imprisoned activist, who was also known for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.
Liu wrote that, even though the authorities deprived him of his freedom, he hoped “to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love”.
Turning to his wife, the poet Liu Xia, he said: “Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.”
Liu Xia herself was placed under house arrest in 2010, but she was allowed to be by his side at the hospital. Her fate will now be the centre of concern among human rights groups.
Liu was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three people to have won it while detained by their own government. He was the second Nobel laureate to die in custody after German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who passed away in a hospital under the Nazis in 1938.
He was arrested in late 2008 after co-authoring Charter 08, a widely circulated online petition that called for political reform in the Communist-ruled nation.
The bold manifesto, which was signed by more than 10,000 people after it went online, calls for the protection of basic human rights and the reform of China’s one-party system.
Western governments, rights groups and fellow activists repeatedly called for his release.
Charter 08 specifically demands the abolition of subversion as a criminal offence.
“We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision,” it says.
“We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”
Liu is also known for his efforts to help negotiate the safe exit from Tiananmen Square of thousands of student demonstrators on the night of June 3-4, 1989 when the military bloodily suppressed six week-long protests in the heart of Beijing.
He was arrested immediately after the crackdown and released without charge in early 1991.
Liu was rearrested and served three years in a labour camp from 1996-1999 for seeking the release of those jailed in the Tiananmen protests and for opposing the official verdict that their actions amounted to a counter-revolutionary rebellion.
In a 2008 interview days before his last arrest, the bespectacled intellectual casually discussed the frequent police visits he endured over the years, according to a video posted on YouTube by the Hong Kong-based FactWire news agency.
Sitting at a desk, he recalled being taken to a labour camp in 1996, where “you can see the system of re-education through labour. That is where the barbarity lies. Your freedom was lost within several minutes without going through any trials.”
Liu, who holds a doctorate in Chinese literature, was once a professor at Beijing Normal University, but was banned from teaching at state institutions over his involvement in the 1989 demonstrations.
As a leading member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a grouping of Chinese writers, Liu remained in close contact with key intellectuals.
Prior to his arrest, he had been largely free to attend meetings and writer group activities despite constant police surveillance.
Although he was banned from publishing in China, many of his writings advocating greater democracy and respect for human rights appeared in Hong Kong and overseas Chinese publications.
Some of these served as evidence in his last trial.
Liu still commanded great respect among Chinese intellectuals, a fact that some say was central to the Communist Party’s decision to bring charges against him.
In his 2009 statement, Liu optimistically looked forward to “a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom”.
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