Liu Xia, widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, spent her last hours in China in a secret state of chaos, excitement and disbelief that she might finally leave the home that had been her prison for eight years, according to friends.

The poet and artist left Beijing on Tuesday, and by Wednesday guards assigned to watch the entrance to her home in the downtown area of Yuyuantan were absent for the first time in years.

Liu Xia left the Chinese capital for Berlin via Helsinki, where she was photographed smiling with her arms outstretched.

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Liu Hui, her younger brother, told the South China Morning Post that he was gladdened by the image.

“When I saw that picture, I could see that she really felt relaxed so I was extremely happy for her,” he said. “After touching down, a friend who accompanied her sent me a message telling me they had landed in Berlin.

“We might speak on the phone. I don’t know how well can she cope with the time difference. I don’t want to disturb her. Let her call me.”

Liu Xia’s long-awaited release came after exhaustive negotiations, lobbying, planning and calculations by family, friends and foreign governments. To secure her freedom once and for all, the evacuation plan was so secretive that even her elder brother Liu Tong was left in the dark.

“I didn’t find out about her leaving until she had boarded the flight,” Liu Tong said on Wednesday.

Multiple sources told the Post that a new window opened for her to leave China before the end of August after an earlier arrangement to leave by April collapsed.

Liu Xia spends first night of freedom with friends in Berlin after being released by China

Liu Xia and her friends were not hopeful this time after the repeated setbacks took a heavy toll on her.

But everything changed after Liu Hui received a sudden phone call on Wednesday night from Chinese police.

“From then on everything happened within less than seven days. [Public security officials] notified us on Wednesday evening, telling us Liu Xia could apply for her passport, a visa and leave the country,” Liu Hui said.

One friend said Liu Hui did not receive his sister’s passport until Friday but a visa for Germany was swiftly arranged.

“Liu Xia was frantically packing over the weekend and Liu Hui was tasked with organising his sister’s trip, including visa, flights and other logistics,” the friend said.

“Liu Xia was only allowed a very tight schedule to bid farewell to a limited circle of friends.”

The friend said Liu Xia was still in a poor physical and psychological condition and required medical treatment. She is expected to focus on her health, with arrangement for her day-to-day needs, including housing, taken care of.

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Another friend in Beijing who saw Liu Xia often said she was in a state of disbelief and confusion before departure.

“It was especially so in the past eight months when her life entered a terrible cycle between staying and leaving. The Chinese authorities had repeatedly promised she could leave, promising she could go in December, at Lunar New Year and at end of April this year before the last time was by the end of August,” the friend said.

“She could not believe she was finally leaving … but it was not her wish to leave China permanently.”

Liu Hui said his sister’s final hours in China were emotional.

He said she told him to be well and that they would see each other soon. Her departure came as a great relief to her family and friends as it was the last wish of her late parents and late husband that she should live free, he said.

It is understood that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to China in May, when she met Chinese President Xi Jinping, played a critical part in securing Liu Xia’s release.

A Western diplomat told the Post that releasing Liu Xia right before the first anniversary of her husband’s death could help reduce negative coverage as other countries and media kept up pressure for her release.

Freedom for detained dissident’s widow Liu Xia after long battle with China

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said Liu Xia’s release was a great relief.

“It is good that Chinese authorities finally have decided to end their unjustified oppression of Liu Xia. Her inhuman ordeal should never have taken place,” Reiss-Andersen said.

“One day their sacrifice will be to the benefit of all Chinese citizens. I will also use the opportunity to thank Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German government for their unwavering support first to Liu Xiaobo, who died in captivity on 13 July 2017, and thereafter to his widow Liu Xia.”

The 57-year-old poet, painter and photographer had been under house arrest since 2010, when her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison. Liu Xia has never been charged with any crime.

Her condition worsened after Liu Xiaobo died aged 61 in hospital last July while serving a prison sentence for inciting subversion, becoming the second Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody after German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1938.

Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk

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