By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING (Reuters) - Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winning political dissident Liu Xiaobo, left China for Germany on Tuesday, in news welcomed by rights groups who had long pressed for her release from what was effectively house arrest.
Liu Xia was on a Finnair flight bound for Helsinki that left Beijing at around 11 a.m. (0300 GMT), Ye Du, a writer and friend, told Reuters. Ye said he was informed of Liu's departure by her older brother.
Liu Xia, 57, had gone to "start her new life" in Europe, her younger brother, Liu Hui, said on his WeChat account, according to a screenshot of the message shown to Reuters by a friend who declined to be identified.
Her departure, following a year of pressure on Beijing from activists and rights groups, comes at the end of a visit to Germany by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, during which the two countries signed commercial deals worth more than $23 billion.
Li was due to leave Germany on Tuesday.
Johnny Lau, a political commentator in Hong Kong, said he believed the authorities had let Liu Xia go to avoid her case sparking a "surge" of pressure on China around the July 13 anniversary of Liu Xiaobo's death.
China has been seeking to bolster its ties with the European Union amid a trade war with the United States.
"A trade war has also broken out between China and the United States. China hopes to team up with Germany," he said.
"Now China has made use of an opportunity to do Germany a favour so as to strengthen the Sino-German relationship."
Germany has been pushing China to let Liu leave following the death of her husband on July 13, 2017, from liver cancer at the age of 61 while in custody, Western diplomats have said.
Officials at the German embassy in Beijing did not confirm the news when contacted by Reuters and referred questions to the German Foreign Office in Berlin.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing that Liu Xia had gone to Germany to seek medical treatment in accordance with her wishes.
Hua said she "could not see any link" between Liu Xia's departure and the high-level Chinese visit.
"This is not a diplomatic issue," she said.
Liu Xia, a poet and artist who suffers from depression, had been under house arrest since 2010 when Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests who was jailed for 11 years in 2009 for inciting subversion, was awarded the Nobel.
Liu Xia was never charged but was largely confined to her Beijing home. If she wanted to go shopping, she had to be escorted by police, a friend told Reuters.
In May, Western diplomats tried to visit her in her home, but were turned away by security personnel, an official of one of the embassies involved told Reuters at the time.
China had repeatedly said Liu Xia was free and accorded all rights guaranteed to her by law.
Rights groups and Western nations had been raising pressure on Beijing over Liu Xia in recent months, as fears grew among rights groups that she might never be able to leave and live abroad, a wish she had made clear.
In a rare case of a top Chinese official taking questions about a sensitive matter, Premier Li Keqiang was asked about Liu's case during a briefing as part of a May visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said China's constitution protected human rights.
Efforts to secure Liu Xia's departure came amid growing concern over her health and state of mind, after Liao Yiwu, a dissident and friend living in Germany, released details of a telephone conversation in April in which an anguished Liu Xia said she was losing hope of leaving.
Germany, which is also home to dissident artist Ai Weiwei, has been outspoken on rights in China. Germany and the United States both sent doctors to visit Liu Xiaobo during his last days.
Liu Xia's departure was "wonderful news" but harassment of her family remained a risk to her freedom to criticise China, Amnesty International's China researcher Patrick Poon said.
Her younger brother, Liu Hui, is in China. Handed an 11-year jail sentence for fraud in 2013, Liu Hui was later released but remained monitored, according to friends of the family.
Western diplomats and rights groups had earlier hoped to be able to get Liu Hui out of China as well.
"Liu Xia might not be able to speak much for fear of her brother's safety," Poon said.
Diplomats have said that authorities had continued to monitor Liu Xia after the death of her husband and she had only been able to meet and speak to friends and family in pre-arranged phone calls and visits.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Michael Martina in Beijing and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Tony Munroe)