The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded three times to people imprisoned or under house arrest. On Friday, the Nobel committee should add a fourth: Liu Xia.
Not that the prize has brought great good fortune. Only one of the three, in fact, lived to enjoy any measure of freedom: Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
She won the prize in 1991 but was confined by her Southeast Asian nation’s military junta to house arrest for most of the next two decades, before finally entering a power-sharing arrangement with her former captors.
The first imprisoned winner was Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and critic of the Nazi government who was awarded the prize in 1936. Adolf Hilter was so angry that he declared no German would ever accept a Nobel Prize.
Hitler would not allow von Ossietzky to travel to Norway to accept the prize, and the Norwegian royal family, fearful of angering the dictator, also stayed away from the ceremony. Von Ossietzky died in a prison hospital in May 1938.
His story resonates eerily with that of the third captive winner, Liu Xiaobo. China’s regime also was furious that the Nobel committee dared recognize this brave and humane campaigner for democracy.
Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the prize in 2010, also died in a hospital, also never having regained his freedom. At the time of his death, less than three months ago, he was 61 years old.
Which is where his wife, Liu Xia, comes in — or should.
Liu Xiaobo won the prize “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He fought, always peacefully, for a more democratic China that would follow its own constitution. That was more than China’s bullying Communist rulers could stand. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison “for the crime of speaking,” as the Nobel website says. And even when he was seriously ailing and desperate for treatment in a Western hospital, the regime still would not let him go.
Through Liu Xiaobo’s years of confinement, Liu Xia paid a heavy price. Though she was never charged with a crime, she was held under a suffocating house arrest, preventing her from almost all communication with the outside world. Once, as she left a courthouse in 2013 where her brother was on trial, she managed to shout to reporters, “I am not free. If they tell you I’m free, tell them I’m not free.”
Even with her husband’s death, she was not freed. Mourning for her husband took place under strict surveillance. Afterward, an American lawyer pressing her case, Jared Genser, called the “cruelty that has been heaped on” her “astonishing and extraordinary.”
“There is no basis in law in China for her detention, and she desperately needs the world’s help to be freed,” Genser said then.
Liu Xia, as Human Rights Watch noted recently, is a courageous figure in her own right, a photographer and a poet as well as her husband’s artistic collaborator and defender. “I am not a vassal of Liu Xiaobo,” she wrote in 2009.
In the Nobel acceptance speech that he was never permitted to deliver, Liu Xiaobo said he still believed in “the advent of a future free China.”
“For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme,” he said.
But his most passionate words were reserved for Liu Xia and her selfless commitment.
“Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning,” he wrote.
China’s Communist rulers thumbed their nose at the Nobel Peace Prize, ostensibly the world’s most prestigious honor — and got away with it. Given China’s growing economic clout, and the regime’s willingness to use that clout for foreign-policy ends, fewer and fewer governments will make any fuss, no matter how China abuses its own citizens.
What better way for the Nobel committee to defend the values that both Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia stand for than to award her the prize that he was never permitted to accept?
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