China on Tuesday rejected criticism over its treatment of cancer-stricken Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo after the United States urged Beijing to give the paroled activist freedom to move and to choose his own doctors.
The US embassy in Beijing joined a growing chorus of Chinese and foreign human rights lawyers and activists demanding the unconditional release of the democracy campaigner amid dismay at his condition.
With three years left to serve in his 11-year sentence, the 61-year-old was granted medical parole days after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer on May 23, his lawyer Mo Shaoping said.
He is in hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang and being treated by top specialists, according to prison authorities.
The US embassy said it was "working to gather more information" about Liu's legal and medical status after authorities confirmed his transfer from prison to hospital.
"We call on the Chinese authorities to not only release Mr Liu but also to allow his wife Ms Liu Xia out of house arrest," spokeswoman Mary Beth Polley told AFP.
But China's foreign ministry hit back, saying "no country has the right to interfere and make irresponsible remarks on Chinese internal affairs".
The writer was sentenced in 2009 for "subversion" after spearheading a bold petition for democratic reforms.
His wife, a poet, has been under house arrest since 2010, when her husband was awarded the Nobel peace prize in absentia. She suffered a heart attack in 2014, when she was also diagnosed with depression, according to a rights group.
A video circulating among their supporters shows Liu Xia sobbing during a video call with a friend and saying her husband "can't have surgery, can't do chemotherapy".
Mo told AFP that Liu Xia is currently able to see her husband every day at the hospital.
"But police are always posted inside the hospital room. With the exception of a few relatives, Liu Xiaobo is not able to have contact with anyone in the outside world, including his lawyers," Mo said.
Friends who tried to visit Liu at the hospital were unable to find him, the lawyer said.
Polley said China should provide the couple with "protection and freedom such as freedom of movement and access to medical care of his choosing, to which they are entitled under the Chinese constitution and legal system and international commitments".
Asked about the US statement, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said "everybody is equal in front of the law" in China and "any other country should respect China's judicial sovereignty and shouldn't use individual cases to interfere."
- Free to leave? -
US-based rights group the Dui Hua Foundation said a person granted medical parole in China was not "free or released" -- they would be supervised by local public security bureaus.
Under Chinese law, it said, medical parole lasts six months after which the person's condition is assessed. Depending on the result, parole can be extended or the person sent back to prison to serve the rest of the sentence.
While prison authorities said Liu was being treated by "eight renowned Chinese oncologists", international human rights groups demanded that he be allowed to seek medical care abroad if he chooses.
Mo said people on medical parole usually cannot leave the country, but if Liu was treated as a "special case" it would be possible for him to seek treatment abroad, according to Chinese law.
- 'Sentenced to death' -
Hundreds of Chinese lawyers, activists and friends signed a petition calling on authorities to give Liu "complete freedom" and allow his wife to "have contact with the outside world".
They also demanded Liu be allowed to choose where he receives medical treatment and called for a thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to his worsening health.
Wu'er Kaixi and Wang Dan, former student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests who now live overseas, posted a joint statement on Twitter saying China had "deliberately sentenced him to death".
Liu was arrested in 2008 after co-writing Charter 08, a petition posted online that called for the protection of basic human rights and reform of China's one-party Communist system.
He was represented by an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel awards ceremony in Oslo.
China strongly condemned the prize as foreign interference in its internal affairs.
Liu is also known for his efforts to help negotiate the safe exit from Tiananmen Square of thousands of student demonstrators on the night of June 3-4, 1989 when the military bloodily suppressed six weeks of protests in the heart of Beijing.