UN Group Calls for Immediate Release of Liu Xiaobo and Wife Liu Xia

August 12, 2011

In May 2011, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued two opinions declaring that the Chinese government's imprisonment of prominent intellectual Liu Xiaobo and house arrest of his wife Liu Xia contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The opinions call on Chinese officials to immediately release Liu Xiaobo, immediately end Liu Xia's house arrest, and provide reparations to both persons. Freedom Now, a US-based non-profit organization that filed a petition for the opinions with the Working Group, released the opinions to the public in August 2011.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (Working Group) adopted two opinions on May 5, 2011, declaring that the Chinese government's deprivation of liberty of prominent Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia contravenes Articles 9, 10, and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and is therefore arbitrary, according to the full text of the opinions made public in an August 1, 2011, Freedom Now press release. Liu Xiaobo, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is currently serving an 11-year sentence that is set to expire on June 21, 2020. Liu Xia has been under house arrest since October 2010, shortly after her husband was awarded the Nobel prize. In November 2010, Freedom Now and a team of international human rights experts filed a petition with the Working Group seeking opinions in both cases. Among the Working Group's key findings include:

Chinese officials contravened Liu Xiaobo's Article 19 right to political free speech. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison on December 25, 2009, for allegedly "inciting subversion" through his participation in a political reform and human rights document known as Charter 08 and six essays he wrote that were posted on overseas Web sites. The Working Group said Chinese officials argued that their restriction on Liu's right to free speech conformed with a provision in Article 19 of the UDHR that permits restrictions insofar as they are provided by law and necessary to protect, among other things, national security and public order. The Working Group noted, however, that the Chinese government had failed to satisfy "the requirement of proportionality" that restrictions on free speech must meet. "The [Chinese government] has not shown in this case a justification for the interference with Mr. Liu Xiaobo's political free speech," the opinion said. As the Commission has noted in previous analysis, the Chinese court's arguments in Liu's case failed to support the contention that Liu's peaceful advocacy for political reform and human rights through Charter 08 and his writings had threatened China's national security. (See Human Rights in China's English translations of the court verdict and six essays.)

Chinese officials contravened Liu Xiaobo's Article 10 right to a fair trial and Article 9 right to be free from arbitrary detention. The Working Group found that Liu's pre-trial detention constituted a "clear violation of Article 9," noting that authorities had failed to promptly notify Liu of the charges against him or to promptly bring him before a judge. They further noted that authorities held Liu "incommunicado for an extended period" and denied him access to counsel. As for Liu's trial, the Working Group found that it "was organized in a way which constitutes a breach of fairness." The group noted that Liu's defense was limited to 14 minutes, despite the "difficult balancing issues" involved in free speech cases. See previous Commission analysis noting how Chinese officials had initially kept Liu under "residential surveillance" in conditions that violated Chinese law, failed to count that period as time served for purposes of his sentence expiration date, and generally obstructed Liu's defense.

Chinese officials' restrictions on Liu Xia amount to detention and violate Articles 9, 10 and 19. The Working Group said that available information indicated that Liu Xia was under house arrest as a result of the restrictions placed on her movement and her communications and visits with the outside world. The Working Group held that these restrictions amounted to detention and that under Articles 9 and 10 of the UDHR she has the right to know the reasons for the detention and the charges against her. She also has the right to promptly face a judge and the right to counsel, the group said. The Working Group also said that the detention of Liu Xia, who had spoken to non-Chinese media in support of her husband, violates the free speech protections of Article 19.

For further information on how Chinese government and Communist Party restrictions on free speech violate international standards, see Section II-Freedom of Expression, in the 2010 CECC Annual Report. For further information on how officials arbitrarily restrict the liberty of politically-sensitive individuals, see Section II-Criminal Justice, in the 2010 CECC Annual Report.