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Nobel winner’s wife: 'I don't know when they will let me go'

BEIJING — The wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo said Tuesday that the Chinese police who were guarding her home had confined her without any legal explanation, and she had no idea when she’d be freed.

As Liu Xia spoke, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing called for her release, but the Chinese government refused to discuss her detention.

Most Chinese still have no idea that the Peace Prize was awarded to her husband, a Chinese citizen.

Speaking on a cell phone brought by a family member, Liu Xia told McClatchy that although she hasn't been arrested, police ordered her not to meet with friends or speak with the news media. She said that to visit family or buy groceries, she must travel by police car under close supervision.

“I don’t know when they will let me go,” said Liu Xia, who’s been under guard since Friday’s award announcement. “The police don’t know, either; they’re just waiting for their orders.”

Mo Shaoping, whose law firm represents Liu Xiaobo, said that Chinese law didn't support Liu Xia’s de facto house arrest.

“In China, it’s something used to confine citizens’ freedom,” Mo said. “There’s no legal term for this.”

The situation — Liu Xia’s detention and her husband sitting in prison — highlights the contrast between senior Chinese leaders' comments about the government’s desire to proceed with civil reform and the often harsh reality for dissidents who call for such change.

In an interview with CNN that aired earlier this month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said, “The people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible.” He stressed the need for all in China, including the government, to follow the law.

The United States urged China to restore Liu Xia's freedom of movement. “We remain concerned by multiple reports that Liu Xia is being confined to her home in Beijing,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Richard Buangan, said in an e-mail to McClatchy. “Her rights should be respected, and she should be allowed to move freely without harassment.”

China's government slammed the prize as an insult to Chinese justice.

“This is not only disrespect for China’s judicial system, but it also puts a big question mark on their true intentions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Tuesday at a news conference. “If some people try to change China’s political system in this way, and try to stop the Chinese people from moving forward, they are obviously making a mistake.”

To punctuate their displeasure, Chinese officials the day before had canceled talks with the Norwegian fisheries minister on short notice.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee in Oslo said that its choice of Liu Xiaobo for the award was meant to highlight the lack of human rights in China. Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for his role in drafting a political manifesto that calls for greater political and human rights protections in China.

So far, China’s response has been to keep Liu in prison, hold his wife under police guard, threaten many other dissidents to keep their mouths shut and suppress unauthorized domestic reporting about the prize.

Using house detentions to take people out of circulation, without following a formal legal process, is a common tactic for dealing with dissidents in China, said Joshua Rosenzweig, the Hong Kong-based senior research manager for the human rights group Dui Hua,

“Procedural rights have never been the highest priority in Chinese law; it’s much more about outcomes,” said Rosenzweig, whose organization does advocacy work for political prisoners in China. “And the desired outcome here is keeping people where you can control them.”

China initially blocked all reports of Liu Xiaobo’s prize, then over the weekend domestic publications carried a Foreign Ministry statement that Liu is a criminal. Subsequent editorials in the official media said, “The Noble Peace Prize has been reduced to a political tool serving Western interests.”

With unintended irony, the Chinese Communist Party turned to the state media of Russia’s authoritarian government, which drew parallels between Liu’s Nobel and the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature, awarded to Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

“It is hard to say whether this year's award to the Chinese dissident is a harbinger of a new cold war between the West and China,” said a column on the Russian state news wire RIA Novosti, approved for public reading in China. “But there can be no doubt that Beijing will take this as an unfriendly, politically motivated gesture.”

The information vacuum — combined with scattered attacks on Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel committee — seems to have worked so far. During interviews in central Beijing this week, very few people had heard of Liu or the award.

“Liu Xiaobo? I don’t know who that is,” said Li Tangsheng, 61, who was selling newspapers on a street side stand.

Told that Liu had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Li responded: “People will know about this only if it’s published in the newspapers.”

Last week there'd been articles saying the prize would be awarded, Li explained, but then he saw nothing about who’d won. He began flipping through the newspapers in front of him to find some mention of what happened. There was none.

Down the block, Wang Yucun manages a larger newsstand with several dozen magazine and newspaper titles for sale.

“I read all of the headlines in the morning,” she said.

Had she seen news about the Nobel prizes this year? Wang, 37, named the winners for medicine and literature.

The Peace Prize? Wang paused. “It’s not clear to me why there’s been news about the other Nobel Prize winners but not that one,” she said.

Did she know who Liu Xiaobo is? Wang turned from the translator who’d posed the question and pointed at a reporter, asking, in all seriousness, “Is he Liu Xiaobo?”

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