Despite facing no charges, the 57-year-old poet Liu Xia had endured heavy restrictions on her movements since 2010 when her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize – an award that infuriated Beijing.
After being allowed to leave China, Liu flew via Helsinki to Berlin, where she arrived just days before the first anniversary of her husband's death from liver cancer.
Berlin-based dissident Liao Yiwu and German Nobel laureate Herta Mueller were among a dozen people waiting to greet her at the airport, shouting out her name from the viewing terrace as she emerged from the aircraft.
But Liu immediately boarded a black van parked on the airfield tarmac and was whisked away without making any remarks.
Liao had earlier voiced his joy on Twitter, saying: “I am so, so, so happy! Finally, finally, Xia is coming today!!”
ich bin so so so happy! Endlich, endlich kommt Xia heute !!https://t.co/Bip3Agm5uy
— 廖亦武 Liao Yiwu (@liaoyiwu1) July 10, 2018
Liu had become a cause celebre and was seen as a test case for China's attitude to human rights, with activists and foreign powers urging Beijing to allow her to leave the country.
Her husband Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, died last year of liver cancer while serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion”.
In an emotional phone call with Liao recently, Liu said, “They should add a line to the constitution: 'Loving Liu Xiaobo is a serious crime – it's a life sentence'.”
With Beijing's rights record in the spotlight, a court in central China sentenced another prominent Chinese political campaigner to 13 years in jail for “subversion”, just hours after Liu Xia left the country.
Qin Yongmin, 64, was first jailed as a “counter-revolutionary” from 1981-1989 and has already spent a total of 22 years in prison.
'Very severe' depression
Close friend Ye Du, speaking to AFP before Liu's departure, said she was suffering from “very severe” depression, adding she would “sometimes faint” and was taking medicine to sleep.
Another friend who has spoken to her several times said she was in “bad shape, physically and psychologically”.
She was finally given a passport last week, this friend, who did not wish to be named, told AFP.
“I hope Liu Xia can find some personal peace and restore her health in Germany,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who called her fate in recent years “nothing short of tragic”. Chinese authorities had consistently maintained Liu was free but imposed severe restrictions on her movement and kept her under constant surveillance.
In May, several foreign diplomats who tried to visit Liu at her apartment amid concerns over her health were denied access.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Liu's travel to Germany for medical treatment was “of her own free will”.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert welcomed the decision to release Liu “from house arrest” and allow her to leave China “as she long wished”.
“We urge China to release all prisoners of conscience and respect the human
rights and fundamental freedoms of all,” she said on Twitter.
We welcome news that Chinese authorities released Liu Xia, widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, from house arrest and allowed her to leave #China as she long wished. We urge China to release all prisoners of conscience and respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all.
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) July 11, 2018