A lawyer for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was blocked Tuesday from leaving Beijing in what appeared to be an attempt by the Chinese government to put a damper on festivities at the Nobel awards dinner next month in Oslo.
Mo Shaoping, whose Beijing law firm represents Liu, and dissident law professor He Weifang were detained at Beijing's airport as they were preparing to board a British Airways flight to London, where they were invited to attend a legal conference.
"We cannot allow you to leave China because that would be a threat to national security," a police officer told the men, Mo said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "They were very polite, but I never learned the real reasons. Whether it has to do with the Nobel prize, it is not clear."
Infuriated by the decision to award the prize to Liu, a dissident writer serving an 11-year prison term, China has mounted an aggressive campaign to prevent or discourage attendance at the Dec. 10 awards ceremony.
The Nobel laureate's wife, Liu Xia, an artist who had planned to go in place of her husband, has been placed under house arrest.
Last week she wrote an open letter to 140 of the couple's friends and fellow activists asking that they attend in her place, but many of them also have been harassed or detained.
China also has warned trading partners in explicit language against going to the ceremony, which by diplomatic protocol is attended by the resident ambassadors in Oslo.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said last week that countries have to choose: "Do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China's judicial system or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people?
"If they make the wrong choice," Cui said, "they have to bear the consequences."