Beijing―Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel dissident Liu Xiaobo who had been under de facto house arrest in China, left the country Tuesday en route to Germany, according to friends.
Despite facing no charges, the 57-year-old poet had endured heavy restrictions on her movements since 2010 when her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize―an award that infuriated Beijing.
Friends said she had taken a Finnair flight to Berlin via Helsinki, a move that came just days before the first anniversary of her husband’s death from liver cancer.
Berlin-based dissident Liao Yiwu, who is expected to welcome her in the German capital later Tuesday, voiced his joy on Twitter, saying: “I am so, so, so happy! Finally, finally, Xia is coming today!!”
Liu had become a cause celebre and was seen as a test case for China’s attitude to human rights, with activists and foreign powers urging Beijing to allow her to leave the country.
Her husband Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, died last year while serving an 11-year jail sentence for “subversion”, making him the first Nobel laureate to die in custody since the era of Nazi Germany.
In an emotional phone call with her friend Liao recently, Liu said, “they should add a line to the constitution: ‘Loving Liu Xiaobo is a serious crime―it’s a life sentence’.”
Speaking to AFP before her departure, close friend Ye Du told AFP that Liu was suffering from “very severe” depression, adding that she would “sometimes faint.”
He had spoken to her about once a month and she told him she was taking medicine to allow her to sleep.
“I can’t fall asleep. Only by taking medication can I fall asleep and stop looking at this painful world,” she said, according to Ye.
Chinese authorities had consistently maintained Liu was free but imposed severe restrictions on her movement and she was under constant surveillance.
In May, several foreign diplomats who tried to visit her at her apartment amid concerns over her health were denied access.
The US, the European Union and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had called on Beijing to free her.
And in May, dozens of the world’s leading writers and artists, from Michael Chabon to Paul Auster and Khaled Hosseini, called on China to release her to seek medical treatment abroad.
Patrick Poon from Amnesty International said it was “really wonderful that Liu Xia is finally able to leave China after suffering so much all these years.”
However, Poon voiced concern for Liu Xia’s brother Liu Hui who is still in China and said she “might not be able to speak much for fear of her brother’s safety”.
Liu was believed to be reluctant to leave China over the safety of her family.
Two men guarded the entrance to Liu’s Beijing apartment Tuesday, and questioned anyone who came near. At least two others patrolled the park outside her residence. The curtains to the apartment were closed.
But despite heavy security, AFP gained access to her apartment on Monday, where there was little sign she was preparing for an imminent departure.
No bags or boxes appeared to have been packed in the fifth-floor duplex apartment and she declined to give a formal interview, citing fears for her younger brother.
Pictures of the couple in happier times lined the walls.
Liu’s departure comes a day after Chinese premier Li Keqiang met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Merkel has spoken out frequently on Chinese human rights abuses and is believed to have pushed for Liu’s release during her May visit to Beijing, where she met the wives of detained human rights lawyers.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said that Liu’s travel to Germany for medical treatment was “of her own free will.”
Beijing has always insisted that she is a free citizen.
“I don’t see any association or link between this incident and the visit paid by Premier Li,” said Hua.