Chinese authorities say Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has died while still in custody following a battle with cancer, after Beijing ignored international pleas to let him spend his final days free and abroad.
The death of the prominent 61-year-old democracy advocate on July 13, more than a month after he was transferred from prison to a heavily guarded hospital, was decried by world leaders and international officials and personalities, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel leading the tributes.
Authorities in the northeastern city of Shenyang said that Liu died three days after going into intensive care to be treated for late-stage liver cancer at a local hospital.
Merkel, whose country offered to treat Liu, paid tribute to him as a "courageous fighter" for human rights.
"I mourn Liu Xiaobo, the courageous fighter for human rights and freedom of expression," her spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeted on Merkel's behalf. "His family has my deep sympathies."
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States mourned Liu's death, and called on China to free the dissident's widow from house arrest and let her leave the country.
"Mr. Liu dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty," Tillerson said in a statement.
"I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes," he said.
In a joint statement, European Council President Donald Tusk and the head of the EU executive commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed sadness at Liu's death and called on China to free political prisoners.
They stressed that they had on several occasions urged Beijing to allow him to receive medical treatment in Germany.
"We reiterate the European Union's call for all prisoners of conscience in China to be released," they said, calling on the Chinese authorities to allow Xiaobo's family to bury him according to their wishes.
"We call on the authorities to remove all restrictions on the movement and communications of his family members," they added.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply saddened" by the death of Liu, but refrained from criticizing China for refusing to allow the Nobel laureate to receive treatment abroad.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, asked about China's refusal to allow Liu to seek treatment abroad and concerns about the well-being of his widow, said, "I don't have anything further to say at this point."
Earlier, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein urged China to release Liu Xia, and allow her to travel abroad.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Liu should have been permitted to travel abroad for treatment.
"Liu Xiaobo should have been allowed to choose his own medical treatment overseas, which the Chinese authorities repeatedly denied him," he said in a statement.
Liu's death silences a government critic who had become a symbol of China's growing crackdown on dissenting voices.
Liu is the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who passed away in a hospital while held by the Nazis in 1938.
Liu was arrested in 2008 after co-writing Charter 08, a petition that called for the protection of basic human rights and reform of China's political system.
He was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December 2009 for "subversion." At the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in 2010 he was represented by an empty chair.
International human rights groups, Western governments, and local activists had urged the authorities to free Liu and grant his final wish to be treated abroad.
Germany had offered to treat Liu, calling for a "signal of humanity" from China. The United States also said it was willing to take him in.
But Chinese authorities maintained that Liu was receiving treatment from top Chinese doctors since being granted medical parole following his diagnosis in late May.
China's Foreign Ministry repeatedly said other countries should not interfere in Beijing's domestic affairs.
Earlier this month, Liu's Chinese doctors said he was not healthy enough to be sent abroad for treatment, a position that was contradicted by U.S. and German medical experts invited by the hospital to examine Liu's condition. The foreign doctors offered to treat Liu at hospitals in their home countries.
Human rights groups decried the way the government treated Liu, accusing the authorities of manipulating information about his health and refusing to let him leave.
His wife, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest in 2010, but she was allowed to see him at the hospital.
Renowned Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei said Liu's death was a very difficult moment for Chinese human rights activists and a testament to China's brutality.
"Liu Xiaobo was not a criminal," Ai said in Berlin. "He was a writer, an intellectual, and he used his life to find ways to make society better."
"China showed how brutal its society can be," Ai said.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, AP, and Reuters