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(New York) - The Chinese Government should immediately release Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate, and allow him to travel to Oslo to attend the Nobel ceremony held in his honor on December 10, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today.

Liu has served one year of an eleven-year prison term for co-authoring Charter 08, a document calling for gradual political reforms in China. His wife Liu Xia was placed under effective house arrest since the announcement of the prize on October 8, and ordered by the police to stop issuing public statements on penalty of being permanently denied permission to visit her husband in prison.

"Liu Xiaobo's arrest was illegitimate, his trial unfair, and his sentencing unjust," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "He should be freed and allowed to travel to receive this historic award along with his wife."

The Chinese government has tried to justify Liu's imprisonment by saying that he is a "criminal," and that his conviction was the fair result of Chinese judicial proceedings. Chinese officials have insisted that other governments should respect the integrity of China's legal system. Yet the lack of integrity and numerous violations of due process have characterized both Liu's persecution and that of China's small but vibrant human rights defender community since the announcement of the prize. 

After his arrest on December 8, 2008, Beijing police held Liu incommunicado and in violation of Chinese law, without access to legal counsel under a form of detention called "residential surveillance" at an undisclosed location in Beijing until June 23, 2009. Since the announcement of the prize on October 8, 2010, Beijing police have also clamped down on Liu's family, friends, and supporters. In addition to Liu Xia's house arrest, all the principal signatories and co-drafters of Charter 08 have been under tight police surveillance, prevented from meeting one another or giving interviews to the media, and denied the right to travel abroad.

Countless other rights activists across the country have been harassed, summoned for questioning, or detained by the Public Security Bureau or state security officers. In addition, several prominent figures, such as the world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei, leading legal scholar He Weifang, China's famous criminal lawyer Mo Shaoping, and the 80-year-old economist Mao Yushi, have been banned from traveling ahead of the ceremony on account that such trips would "jeopardize national security." One internet user, Mou Yanxi, was detained for 17 hours for sending a message of support to Liu Xiaobo on Twitter. Another, Bai Dongping, has been charged with state security crimes for posting a picture of the Tiananmen demonstration in 1989 on QQ, a popular Chinese Internet messaging service.

Human Rights Watch, along with Chinese rights advocates and legal experts, have long called for the abolition of the crime of "inciting subversion" (article 105 of the Criminal Law) under which Liu was sentenced, which criminalizes criticism of the Communist Party and has been indiscriminately used to punish peaceful dissenters.

Estimates for the number of political and religious prisoners in China are difficult to come by, but range in the thousands. Official statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that several hundred people each year are sentenced under "state security crimes" and there are at least 18 other known political prisoners currently serving a sentence for the crime of "inciting subversion." The Chinese government has also consistently used the administrative system of "reeducation-through-labor" that allows the police to impose sentences of up to three years' detention without a trial or a defense lawyer, and to punish protesters, religious and political dissenters, and rights activists.

"The government's argument that Liu is a criminal simply shows that Chinese laws themselves infringe on freedom of expression and are out of step with international standards and the aspirations of Chinese citizens," said Richardson. "Beijing's repressive escalation in response to the Peace Prize vindicates the Nobel Committee's decision to highlight China's human rights reality."

Human Rights Watch said that in recent weeks the Chinese government has also attempted to intimidate other governments from sending representatives to the Nobel ceremony on December 10 and from expressing support for Liu Xiaobo's Nobel award. On November 5, Cui Tiankai, China's deputy foreign minister, said that if countries made "the wrong choice, they [would] have to bear the consequences." Such threats echo the attempt by another deputy foreign minister, Fu Ying, to intimidate the Nobel Committee in August 2010, when she travelled to Oslo to warn the committee of diplomatic retaliation by Beijing against Norway.

"Governments attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony will demonstrate their support for universal human rights, and for the Nobel Committee's crucial reminder about the strong relation between peace and respect for human rights in international affairs," said Richardson. "As important, the participants will by their presence in Oslo reject arbitrary interference by the Chinese government, and bolster expectations that the Chinese government will uphold international norms and legal obligations as its influence in the world becomes more important."

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