A former top Chinese Communist Party aide on Friday lent his support to a growing chorus of calls for the release of jailed Chinese Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, as Beijing once more called the pro-democracy activist a convicted criminal.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Friday that Liu, who is four years into an 11-year jail term for subversion after he spearheaded a movement for political reform, had broken the law.
"I want to point out that Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to imprisonment by China's judicial authorities for violating laws," Hong told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Bao Tong, a former aide to ousted president Zhao Ziyang, said Hong's response to an open letter penned by 134 Nobel laureates earlier this week calling for Liu's release and an end to house arrest for his wife Liu Xia, was "rude" and "baffling."
"The response by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei to the well-meaning demands of 134 respected Nobel prize-winners that it constituted 'interference in China's internal affairs' is baffling," wrote Bao, who is himself under house arrest at his Beijing home.
"I do not get it! I can't understand it! It is completely inexplicable," Bao wrote in a commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service.
He congratulated incoming president Xi Jinping on "allowing" Liu Xia to give an interview to the Associated Press on Thursday, although her lawyer said it was likely the result of sloppiness on the part of her police guards at her Beijing home, who had apparently gone out to lunch when the reporters came.
"The fact that the Associated Press was allowed to interview Liu Xia is something that the old leadership wouldn't have permitted," Bao wrote.
"This is how we go forward, one step at a time."
The teary interview was the first Liu Xiao was able to give since she was placed under house arrest in October 2010 after her husband's Nobel win was announced and infuriated Beijing.
Hong declined to comment on her case, however.
"I am not aware of what you mentioned, but I want to point out that the legitimate rights of citizens are protected by the rule of law," Hong said.
Repeated calls to Liu Xia's cell phone returned a "switched off" message on Friday.
Call to visit Liu Xia
Hong Kong-based veteran journalist Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname Beifeng, called on Chinese netizens to try to visit Liu Xia in Beijing, in a similar manner to the campaign to visit Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng before his escape in April.
"After [Chen] got out, he said that the campaign to visit him had been a real morale-booster for him," Wen said.
"Yesterday, we saw that Liu Xia's mood is close to mental collapse; the authorities' treatment of Liu Xia is a crime against heaven and against humanity," he said, referring to how she had cried about her husband and her house arrest in the interview.
"We should turn it into a movement and give her some precious support."
Fellow Beijing activist and close friend of the couple, Hu Jia, said he had been told to stay home after he tried to visit Liu Xia himself on Thursday.
"I asked them if it was because of Liu Xia's [interview] and they looked very knowing; I don't think they were in any doubt as to [what was was going on]," he said.
Hu added that a journalist from Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper had also tried to visit Liu Xia on Thursday, and had met with "violence" from the guards near her house.
"Last night [he] called me, and I encouraged him to go, and he did go, but when he got there he was treated roughly by the guards, who pinioned his arms and shoved him away," he said.
Meanwhile, the overseas-based rights group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) called for more governments and organizations to join the international campaign in support of the Lius.
"International pressure generated by global and regional human rights bodies, concerned governments and NGOs would add a momentous push for this renewed campaign," the group said in an e-mailed statement.
"The international community must join Desmond M. Tutu and the 134 Nobel laureates," it said.
In Stockholm on Thursday, this year's Nobel literature prize-winner and Party-backed writer Mo Yan declined to comment on Liu's continued imprisonment, although he has previously voiced hopes for the dissident's release.
Mo asked journalists not to press him on the topic, likening censorship to "security checks at an airport."
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see and by RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.