A family photo shows Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, left, with his brother Liu Xiaoxuan in Guangzhou, China, March 14, 2005. (AFP/Getty Images)

China’s only Nobel Peace Prize recipient and most famous dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was taken from prison to a hospital Monday for treatment of his advanced liver cancer, his lawyer told The Washington Post.

Liu, 61, who participated in the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations, became China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2010 for advocating greater freedoms in his country — and is the only laureate serving a prison sentence.

He was arrested in 2008 and subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” China has held him incommunicado since — in hopes of erasing any memory of him, according to colleagues and human rights activists. 

“Liu was diagnosed with liver cancer on May 23, and the parole application was approved last week,” said his lawyer, Mo ­Shaoping.­ “He is now in a hospital in Shenyang. Some family members have already visited him.”

The Jinzhou Prison administration of Liaoning province confirmed Liu’s parole Monday. In a statement posted on its website, officials said a medical team consisting of eight cancer doctors is developing a treatment program.

Many of his supporters were not even aware he was sick.

“We are shocked and devastated to learn that our dear friend and mentor Liu Xiaobo, China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been suffering from cancer in China’s brutal prison environment,” said a statement by Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan, his friends and former student leaders from 1989. “Liu Xiaobo was an important partner in our democratic movement of 1989. He was — and continues to be — our personal mentor. We are convinced that his strength and optimism will make it possible for him to overcome the disease.”

In its daily briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no information on the matter.

But if Liu has been allowed to leave prison or granted a form of parole, it does not mean he has been "released" or is free to communicate with the outside world, experts said.

Under Chinese law, a prisoner granted medical parole is "still serving his/or her sentence, albeit in a location other than the prison itself, " said John Kamm, head of the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S-based group that campaigns for the release of political prisoners in China.  "It is likely that Liu Xiaobo is being supervised by armed guards."

In 2010, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize while in prison, his family was prevented from traveling to Norway to accept the award. His wife, Liu Xia, has also been under house arrest since then. The award was presented to an empty chair, which later became a symbol of China’s repression.

“Adding injury to insult, Liu Xiaobo has been diagnosed with a grave illness in prison, where he should never have been put in the first place,” said William Nee, ­China researcher for Amnesty ­International. “The Chinese authorities should immediately ensure that Liu Xiaobo receives adequate medical care, effective access to his family, and that he and all others imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights are immediately and unconditionally released.”

Liu was arrested in 2008 for his role in the writing of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for China’s democratic transition that was signed by thousands of people inside the country.

His publications have since been banned in China.

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the prize in 2010, it cited “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Beijing condemned the award, and relations with Norway suffered for years.

Rose Tang, who was a student participant in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, said Liu was one of the last hunger strikers in the square on June 4 when Chinese troops killed or arrested thousands of protesters, and he played a key role in negotiating safe passage for students out of the area.

Liu was a fellow at Columbia University when the protests erupted and flew back to be with the students.

Tang, who now lives in New York, recalled how Liu sent a fellow protest leader to negotiate with troops to allow the students to leave, potentially saving the lives of up to 2,000 people. 

“Bullets were flying over our heads and some students (including me) wanted to stay and fight till the end,” she said. “Student leaders were disputing among themselves. Liu and his fellow hunger strikers made the crucial decision.”

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said that while Liu’s release for treatment came as a relief, she feared that little has changed.

That he was ever in prison at all says all one needs to know about Chinese leaders’ profound hostility toward peaceful expression and the rule of law,” she said. “It appears highly unlikely that his release will equal real freedom — for him, or for all others who simply seek peaceful, positive change in China,” she said.

Denyer reported from Seoul. Luna Lin in Beijing and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethi­o­pia, contributed to this report.