Leading Chinese dissident charged with 'inciting subversion'

The arrest of writer Liu Xiaobo fits a pattern of increasingly harsh measures against independent voices, human rights groups say.

Will Burgess/Reuters/File
Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo in 1995.

China's best-known dissident was formally arrested on Wednesday, after more than six months in secret detention.

Liu Xiaobo, an internationally respected writer, was accused of "inciting subversion," the state news agency, Xinhua, reported. The charge carries a maximum 15-year jail term.

Mr. Liu's formal arrest fits a pattern of increasingly harsh measures by the authorities against independent voices, human rights groups say. Earlier this month, nearly 20 civil rights lawyers lost the right to practice when their licenses were not renewed.

"Tolerance of dissent is lower," says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based China analyst with Human Rights Watch. "We are in the biggest cycle of political tightening we have seen for many years."

Never charged, until now

Though Liu has spent nearly six years in jail, spread over three spells, he has never before been formally charged with any crime.

The police have not said why Liu was detained last December, nor why he was charged Wednesday, but his detention appears linked to his role as one of the original signatories of Charter 08. That was a call for bold political reforms that would lead to democracy in China. It was published on the Internet the day after Liu's arrest.

'Inciting subversion'

Ironically, one of the demands enshrined in the Charter was for the abolition of the crime of "inciting subversion," which has often been used to silence critics of the regime. For having called for an end to the crime of "inciting subversion," Liu was charged with that very offense.

News of Liu's arrest drew strong criticism from human rights organizations. "This use of state security charges to punish activists for merely expressing their views must stop," said Roseann Rife of Amnesty International in a statement. "This is another act of desperation by a regime that is terrified of public opinion."

When Liu, a literary critic and essayist, was taken from his home last December, leading authors from around the world, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Nadine Gordimer called for his release.

Liu's arraignment puts an end to more than six months of detention at an unknown location, in contravention of Chinese law. Police said he was being held under "residential surveillance," a form of house arrest, while he was under investigation, but he was not held at his own home.

He was denied all contact with the outside world, except for two meetings with his wife.

Though his formal arrest on specified charges brings Liu back into the realm of legal detention, and gives him a right to a lawyer, it will almost certainly lead to his imprisonment. Almost all the political cases that go before China's courts result in conviction.

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