Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, landed in Berlin via Helsinki on Tuesday after she was finally allowed to leave China for Germany, ending a near eight-year ordeal of house arrest.
Her release – sought for years by Western governments and activists – came after repeated diplomatic efforts by Germany and just three days before the first anniversary of her husband’s death in custody from liver cancer.
The 57-year-old poet and artist appeared exhilarated touching down at Helsinki Airport hours after she left Beijing. All smiles in her grey cardigan, she was photographed with her arms wide open, embracing her first taste of freedom after years of round-the-clock surveillance.
China’s foreign ministry confirmed Liu’s departure on Tuesday afternoon, saying she had gone to Germany to “treat her illness according to her wishes”.
Though never charged with any crime, Liu had been under house arrest since her late husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in prison, an ordeal that plunged her into clinical depression.
Her condition worsened after Liu Xiaobo, the country’s most famous advocate for democracy, died aged 61 in hospital last July while serving a prison sentence for inciting subversion, becoming the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1938.
Liu flew out on Tuesday morning on a Finnair flight bound for Berlin, according to her friends, who said that her younger brother, Liu Hui, was not on the plane.
Liu Xia had long insisted on taking Liu Hui abroad with her, fearing that he would be held hostage by Chinese authorities to prevent her from speaking freely after leaving China.
On social media on Tuesday morning Liu Hui said his sister had left Beijing for Europe to “start her new life”. He thanked everyone who had cared for and helped her over the years. The post was verified by two of Liu Xia’s close friends.
News of her release came while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was on a trip to Germany. He met German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday and pledged to oppose protectionism and safeguard free trade – just as both countries face punitive tariffs from the United States.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday that she did not see any link between Li’s trip and Liu Xia’s departure, adding that the issue was not “diplomatic in nature”.
Germany, long a strong advocate for human rights, has led the diplomatic campaign for Liu’s release. It had discussed the case with Beijing and repeatedly said it would welcome Liu Xia if she chose to go to Germany.
Liu’s freedom was celebrated by her family, friends and supporters at home and around the world.
Writer and friend Ye Du said Liu Xia’s elder brother, Liu Tong, told him that he was very happy that his sister had left China.
“I hope she can shake off all the unhappy memories of the past when she gets to a free place, and that her health can be assured. I hope I can meet her in person in the future,” Ye quoted him as saying.
Ye said he was also very happy for Liu Xia, adding that he hoped she could now make her health a priority.
After years of living under house arrest Liu Xia suffers from clinical depression, and her friends said last year that she required medication just to be able to sleep at night.
In Berlin, friends and supporters of Liu Xia and her late husband woke to the news, saying they were relieved and looking forward to her arrival.
“I’m so happy for her. It’s been a tragedy that she wasn’t allowed to come to Germany earlier,” said Peter Sillem, who helped publish Liu Xiaobo’s book No Enemies, No Hatred in German in 2010 and began representing Liu Xia’s artwork last year.
“I hope she will recover from all the hardship that she has endured in the past eight years, that she will be able to transform, to deal with that in the means of writing poetry, doing artistic work again – just to be able to enjoy being a free woman,” he said.
“I do admire her work as a poet, artist, photographer. She’s a very unique artist. And it is also very important to emphasise that she’s not only a widow of Liu Xiaobo – she’s a very strong woman and artist in her own right.”
In Hong Kong, Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan called on Beijing to also release Liu Xia’s younger brother Liu Hui.
“It is hard to not suspect that the central government might be holding Liu Hui hostage, so even if Liu Xia is out of the country, she cannot criticise the central government,” Wong said.
Ousted lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung recalled the day after Liu Xiaobo died, saying he and three other democrats were disqualified from the Hong Kong legislature over the oath-taking saga.
“The oppression we faced was much less when compared to what Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents have gone through,” an emotional Leung said.
He also called on the public to join a memorial rally near the city’s government headquarters in Admiralty for Liu Xiaobo on Friday.
Meanwhile, rights groups have called for the Chinese authorities to stop harassment of Liu’s family still in China.
“Liu Xia should have been able to live – and grieve – freely while her husband was wrongly detained and when he grew ill and died. We hope that she is en route to freedom and hopefully a more peaceful life,” Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei and Alvin Lum