July 13, 2017 / 5:48 PM / a month ago

West mourns Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, criticises Beijing

An altar is set up for the late Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China July 13, 2017.Bobby Yip

(Reuters) - Western leaders, rights groups and the Nobel Peace Prize committee expressed sorrow at the death of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on Thursday, but reaction was muted in his homeland, where strict censorship made him less well-known than abroad.

The United States called on China to release prisoners of conscience and free his widow, Liu Xia, who remains under house arrest.

"Today, I join those in China and around the world in mourning the tragic passing of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died while serving a lengthy prison sentence in China for promoting peaceful democratic reform," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

Liu, 61, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 after he helped write a petition known as "Charter 08" calling for sweeping political reforms.

His death was announced in a brief statement from the authorities in Shenyang, the northeastern city where he was being treated for late-stage liver cancer after being transferred from prison to hospital last month.

France, Britain and Germany joined calls from Washington for Liu Xia to be allowed to travel and leave the country if she wished, and criticised Beijing for not having allowed Liu to travel abroad for treatment.

The Norwegian government, which resumed full diplomatic relations with Beijing in December after they were put on ice due to the Nobel award to Liu Xiaobo, said in a one-paragraph statement it was saddened by Liu's death.

"It is with deep grief that I received the news of Liu Xiaobo's passing," Prime Minister Erna Solberg said. "Liu Xiaobo was for decades a central voice for human rights and China's further development."

Berit Reiss-Andersen, the leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee which awards the prize, said Liu would remain "a powerful symbol for all who fight for freedom, democracy and a better world".

And she criticised Western governments for not being vocal enough in support of Liu before his death.

"It is a sad and disturbing fact that the representatives of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, are less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others," she said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said China and the world had "lost a principled champion who devoted his life to defending and promoting human rights, peacefully and consistently, and who was jailed for standing up for his beliefs".

China's state news agency Xinhua reported Liu's death in a brief story in English, but not Chinese.

References to his passing were swiftly removed from Weibo, the country's answer to Twitter, though images and comments were shared on the WeChat messaging service.

Fellow dissident and artist Ai Weiwei was vocal in his criticism of Beijing.

Liu Xiaobo was not a criminal," he told Reuters in his Berlin studio. "He was a writer, an intellectual and he used his life to find ways to make society better."

Asked whether the Chinese government had contributed to Liu's death by preventing him from receiving treatment abroad, Ai said: "China showed how brutal its society can be."

Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, Alistair Smout in London, Michel Rose in Paris and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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