Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel dissident Liu Xiaobo, gestures as she arrives at the Helsinki International Airport in Finland on July 10. (Jussi Nukari/AP)

After eight years of de facto house arrest, the widow of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died last year in Chinese custody boarded her flight to freedom.

Liu Xia, a poet, was relentlessly surveilled and effectively detained after the death of her husband, writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, on July 13 of last year. But on Tuesday, she was on her way to Germany. 

“My sister has left Beijing to fly to Europe. She will start a new life and is grateful for all the people who have cared for her and helped her,” her brother Liu Hui posted on WeChat on Tuesday morning.

Photographers caught up with her in Helsinki, where she was in transit, and she grinned widely for the cameras spreading her arms — a stark contrast from the few images of her that have surfaced over the past few years in China.

China’s Foreign Ministry later confirmed her departure, saying she left the country “by her own free will” for medical treatment. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not comment further on her health or the timing of her release.

Over the last year, the European Union and the United States have  repeatedly urged President Xi Jinping to allow the widow to leave the country, asserting she had never been charged with a crime.

News of her release came just a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met in Berlin, stressing their shared commitment to free trade in what some observers saw as a message to President Trump.

It also comes just days before the first anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death, an occasion that was expected to draw fresh attention to her detention.

Human rights advocates celebrated the news but stressed she should never have been held in the first place. 

 “Liu Xia should have been able to live and grieve freely while her husband was wrongly detained and when he grew ill and died,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “We hope she is en route to freedom and hopefully a more peaceful life.”

Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Amnesty International, said he hopes the end of her house arrest will give Liu Xia the chance to recover from the trauma of her years-long ordeal.

“Liu Xia has been suffering from depression and under tight surveillance for so many years,” he said. “Her situation has been so worrying.”

Poon noted that with her brother still in China, Liu may find it difficult, even dangerous, to speak about her case from Germany.

Liu’s late husband, Liu Xiaobo, was a renowned writer and activist. He returned from an academic job in the United States to take part in the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and was arrested in the aftermath of the massacre there — the first of several stints in Chinese jail cells. 

He was last arrested for his role in creating Charter 08, a call for political changes in China. In 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. 

The next year, he became China’s first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights.” A chair sat empty for him at the ceremony in Norway.

He died a year ago Friday, of liver cancer, under the close watch of Chinese security personnel and their cameras. They had denied him the chance to seek treatment abroad. 

Through her husband’s ordeal, Liu Xia, 57, faced her trials on her own. Chinese officials told reporters she was free to do what she wished, but Western diplomats and the media were effectively banned from visiting her.

Since her husband’s death, she has been guarded by Chinese security personnel and constantly monitored, unable to leave her house on her own, take interviews or travel. 

Occasionally, she managed to make contact with friends and supporters. In a letter published last year, Liu wrote she was “going mad” in her isolation, according to the AFP news agency.

“Too solitary,” the note read, “I have not the right to speech / To speak loudly / I live like a plant / I lie like a corpse.”

In May, Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, who lives in Germany, published a recording of an April phone call between him and a hysterical, desperate Liu. 

“I’ve got nothing to be afraid of. If I can’t leave, I’ll die in my home,” she told her friend.

“Xiaobo is gone, and there’s nothing in the world for me now,” she continued. 

“It’s easier to die than live. “Nothing would be simpler for me than dying in defiance.”

Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report