The Nobel laureate and democracy icon Liu Xiaobo has been cremated in north-eastern China, Chinese authorities have announced, amid growing fears for the safety of his wife, Liu Xia.
The veteran dissident died on Thursday, aged 61, becoming the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since the 1935 recipient, German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, died under surveillance after years confined to Nazi concentration camps.
Speaking at a press conference in the city of Shenyang, where Liu died, a government spokesman said his cremation had taken place at a local funeral parlour following a “short mourning service” held at about 6.30am on Saturday.
“Liu’s body was cremated … in accordance with the will of his family members and local customs,” China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said in a brief dispatch.
The spokesman claimed the “private” ceremony had been attended by family and “good friends” of the dissident – although friends and supporters have claimed they were ordered not to travel to Shenyang by Chinese security services.
The spokesman told reporters Liu’s wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia, had been in attendance and had been given her husband’s ashes.
As the revered democracy activist was cremated, friends of the couple said they were growing increasingly concerned about the well-being of Liu Xia. She has been living under heavy surveillance and in almost total isolation since her husband won the Nobel prize, in 2010, and had hoped to leave China along with Liu Xiaobo before his death.
“We have lost touch with her now for three full days,” Jared Genser, a US human rights lawyer who represents her and her late husband, told the Guardian. “I’m incredibly concerned about her health and welfare.”
China News Service, a Communist party-controlled news agency, claimed on Friday that Liu Xia was “a free woman” who was deliberately shunning her friends and relatives because she wanted to grieve in peace.
According to the South China Morning Post, an anonymous government source told the Chinese agency Liu wanted to be left “undisturbed to handle Liu Xiaobo’s funeral”.
Zhang Qingyang, a propaganda official in Shenyang, repeated those claims on Saturday. “Liu Xia is free,” he said, according to Reuters, without revealing her whereabouts. “I believe the relevant departments will protect Liu Xia’s rights according to the law,” Zhang added.
However, Genser rejected claims that Liu Xia was free as “a sick joke”.
“It leaves me incredulous to think that the Chinese government would think that anybody would believe such a claim: that she is grieving and does not want to be disturbed. I mean, come on. That is just totally ridiculous.”
Genser added: “We all know the truth. The truth is clear as day. She has been under house arrest without charge or trial for seven years and even after her husband is dead that appears not to be good enough for the Chinese government.”
Shang Baojun, a Chinese lawyer who represented Liu Xiaobo and was his friend, said he had not attended the funeral. “I know nothing about it,” he said by phone, before explaining that it was “not convenient” to talk – a common expression in China indicating that someone is coming under pressure from authorities to stay silent.
The Global Times, a Communist party controlled tabloid, chose to mark Liu’s cremation with a vicious personal assault. “He was paranoid, naive and arrogant,” the newspaper said in an English-language editorial. “Chinese society opposes and despises him.
“Deification of Liu by the west will be eventually overshadowed by China’s denial of him,” it added, branding the Nobel laureate “a disruptive player to China’s development theme”.
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen
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