US human rights activists have launched a campaign to free prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), whose case has become a cause celebre outside China.

The Washington Post carried an op-ed article on Thursday by Liu’s wife Liu Xia (劉霞) imploring US President Barack Obama to ask Beijing to free her husband.

The next day, the PEN American Center — part of an international organization promoting freedom of expression — named Liu the winner of this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

Over the weekend there was also a series of lectures, speeches and marches across the US aimed at winning publicity for Liu’s plight.

Liu was one of the primary drafters of a document known as Charter 08 calling for comprehensive political reform in China, including the establishment of a democratic government and the protection of universally recognized human rights.

He was arrested at his home in Beijing on Dec. 8 and remains in police custody even though no charges have been brought against him.

Twelve days after Liu’s arrest, civic groups in Taiwan urged Beijing to release him, to respect freedom of speech and to embrace the terms of Charter 08, which they said “will be beneficial to China’s democratic development and the welfare of its citizens.”

They also called on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to openly support Chinese dissidents to demonstrate that Taiwan was “a beacon of human rights and civic freedoms in East Asia.”

“Taiwan cannot focus just on economic and animal exchanges with China and ignore its role in promoting human rights, democracy and freedom in China,” said Yang Chang-chen (楊長鎮), head of the Deng Liberty Foundation in Taiwan.

Anthony Appiah, president of the PEN American Center, said in a New York speech this weekend: “The liberties that allow all of us to make meaningful lives have always depended, alas, on those who are willing, like Liu Xiaobo, to put their own freedom at risk. I am filled with admiration — indeed, with awe — each time I read about the extraordinary things he has done.”

Ian Buruma, a professor of human rights at Bard College in New York State, recently wrote that Liu was “one of the most lucid Chinese intellectuals.”

He said: “The Communist government managed to stay in power after the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989 not just through brute force. A semblance of political legitimacy, especially among the educated middle class, was purchased with the promise of greater wealth.

“But if this arrangement collapses and increasing material prosperity can no longer be taken for granted, many unpleasant things could happen. Rural areas and industrial cities might explode in massive riots,” he said.

Buruma said that China should follow the example of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan and join the “mainstream of civilized nations.”

In her plea to Obama, Liu Xia said: “I fear that the government is preparing to stage a show trial and convict my husband of ‘inciting the subversion of state power,’ a charge frequently leveled against political dissidents and one that typically carries a lengthy prison sentence.

“My husband has done nothing wrong, and his imprisonment is a great tragedy not only for me but also for the countless people of my country who lack a voice but share his desire to see China become a free, democratic nation,” she said.