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SHENYANG, China – Family members of Liu Xiaobo scattered the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's ashes into the sea on Saturday in funeral proceedings closely orchestrated by the Chinese government following his death from cancer while in custody.
Liu's supporters said the move was intended by the authoritarian government to permanently erase any traces of China's best-known political prisoner, who died Thursday at the age of 61.
The sea burial took place Saturday at noon, just hours after his cremation, a spokesman for the northeastern city of Shenyang, where Liu died, told reporters.
Liu's elder brother, also addressing reporters at the briefing, thanked the ruling Communist Party and the government for its handling of his brother's funeral. The brother, Liu Xiaoguang, is regarded by Liu's friends as having long been unsupportive of Liu's political advocacy.
Liu died from multiple organ failure following a battle with liver cancer while serving an 11-year sentence for incitement to subvert state power. In the run-up to his death, Beijing faced mounting international criticism for not letting him and his wife travel for treatment abroad as he had wished.
The government held two briefings Saturday and provided photos of the funeral and the sea burial, the latest moves in a propaganda campaign seemingly aimed at countering criticism that Beijing has failed to handle Liu's deterioration and dying wishes in a humanitarian way. A video about Liu's hospital treatment released on the website of Shenyang's judicial bureau Friday appeared aimed at the same objective.
Activists and friends of the family said the sea burial appeared to be Beijing's way of removing every last physical trace of Liu. It also removes the need for a land-based grave at which his supporters would have been able to pay their respects.
"The government's thinking is that in this way, they can destroy the body and remove all traces of him," dissident and family friend Hu Jia said by phone.
"After all, he's a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and he died after being suppressed by the authorities," Hu said. "The authorities are very worried that a grave would be the focal point of the public's actions to memorialize him, which could easily turn into protests."
Activist filmmaker and friend Zeng Jinyan said the sea burial would not deter supporters from commemorating Liu's life.
"Now, Liu Xiaobo is everywhere," Zeng said. "Two-thirds of the earth's surface is covered by the sea and I can foresee that in the future, activists and ordinary people will go to the sea and memorialize Liu Xiaobo."
In Hong Kong, thousands of Liu's supporters and activists attended a candlelight vigil Saturday to mourn his death.
Supporters paid their respects by observing a minute of silence and marching through the streets of Hong Kong holding lit candles.
Liu's wife and other family members have been closely guarded by authorities and remain largely out of contact with the outside world even after his death. Governments around the world have urged China to free his wife, Liu Xia, from the strict house arrest she has lived under for years even though she has not been convicted of any crime.
The government handout photos showed Liu Xia, who wore dark sunglasses, being comforted by her brother in a funeral parlor as they stood in a row with Liu's older and younger siblings and their wives. Liu's body lay in an open casket in the center of the room, surrounded by an arrangement of potted white flowers.
A black banner strung on the wall read "Mr. Liu Xiaobo's funeral" in white Chinese characters. It was positioned above a framed picture of Liu. A press release issued by the government said that the ceremony was held at 6:30 a.m. to the music of Mozart's Requiem, and that the body was cremated shortly afterward.
The government also said some of Liu's friends attended the ceremony, a claim that was disputed by people who have long been close to Liu. In the handout images, none among a group of people standing by the casket were identifiable as any of Liu's friends, Zeng said.
Zeng said she was among the Liu family's friends who had traveled to Shenyang only to be prevented by the authorities from seeing Liu in his final moments.
"I just want to be closer to him and to see him, touch him even, if it's possible, and to give Liu Xia a hug, that's all," she said in English.
Zeng said it was "shameful" that the government said Liu's friends had attended the funeral. "How disgusting," she said.
Another of Liu's friends, dissident writer Mo Zhixu, said he thought the well-built young men with buzz cuts in the handout photos resembled security agents who kept track of Liu's wife. "This is just a big performance," he said.
"This regime has long been acting without humanity — that's why they denied him even a minute of freedom even until his death," Mo said.
At the briefing in Shenyang, a spokesman for the city's information office said the authorities were looking out for Liu Xia's interests and insisted that she is free.
"As far as I know, Liu Xia has freedom. But she just lost her relative and is in deep sorrow," spokesman Zhang Qingyang said. "After Liu Xiaobo's death, let Liu Xia tend to his affairs and try to keep her away from external interference."
Liu was only the second Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in police custody, a fact pointed to by human rights groups as an indication of the Chinese Communist Party's increasingly hard line against its critics. The first, Carl von Ossietzky, died from tuberculosis in Germany in 1938 while serving a sentence for opposing Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.
Liu rose to prominence during the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for co-authoring "Charter 08," a document that called for an end to one-party rule in China.
He was in prison when he was awarded the Nobel in 2010, which Beijing condemned as an affront to its political and legal systems.
There is little mention of Liu in China's heavily censored state media and social networking platforms. One notable exception is a newspaper published by the Communist Party that said in an editorial that the West was "deifying" Liu, a man the paper described as a criminal who was "paranoid, naive and arrogant."
"Liu's memorial tablet cannot find a place in China's cultural temple," the Global Times said in the editorial Saturday. "Deification of Liu by the West will be eventually overshadowed by China's denial of him."
Wong reported from Beijing. AP video journalist Johnson Lai contributed to this report from Hong Kong.