Shelter: Lockdown

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Photo by Tomas Castelazo.

A dinner party of those who have served time on house arrest would be a strange mix: dictators rubbing elbows with deposed world leaders beside out-of-control celebrities. Attendees on the invite list could include Lili?uokalani, the last Hawaiian Queen, and actress-turned-rehab-queen Lindsey Lohan; Chilean dictator Augosto Pinochet and cheating banker Bernie Madoff; lifestyle prima donna Martha Stewart and hip-hop producer Dr. Dre…

While house arrest seems to be the cushy alternative to traditional incarceration reserved for the rich and powerful, it has also been used for centuries to confine people whose supposed crimes cannot be easily prosecuted—artists and thinkers whose ideas threaten systems in power. In 1633, Galileo Galilee was put under house arrest for writing in favor of the heliocentric model of the solar system, flouting the established views of the Church at the time. He died in confinement in his home outside of Florence. In 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political leader and peace activist, was placed under house arrest by the military junta for her advocacy for democratic reforms. Offered freedom in exchange for exile, Suu Kyi refused. When her husband in Oxford, England was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1997, the Burmese government denied repeated requests to allow him to visit. He died in 1999, having seen his wife only five times since the beginning of her confinement. She spent fifteen years in house arrest between 1989 and 2010.

Lui Xia, a Chinese poet who has been under house arrest for three years has said of her confinement, “I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.” Lui Xia was put under confinement in 2010, shortly after her husband, the poet and activist Lui Xiaobo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Lui Xiaobo had been imprisoned since 2008 for his part in authoring a document demanding democratic reforms in China. Lui Xia’s visits with him are rare and highly restricted.

This winter, she spoke for a few stolen minutes with a cameraman who managed to sneak past the guards. Sitting in the lamplight at her desk, she read her latest poems from a spiral-bound notebook, a cigarette held loosely in one hand.

Is it a tree?
It’s me, alone.
Is it a winter tree?
It’s always like this, all year round.
Where are the leaves?
The leaves are beyond.

On the desk beside her lay a drawing of a bare tree, gnarled and twisted before an empty sky. Reserved compared to her husband, Lui Xia never sought to be an activist. She has not been charged with any crime, and the Chinese government does not acknowledge her confinement. After a heart attack in late January, Liu Xia was denied medical treatment for almost two months. When she was finally allowed to see a doctor at the end of March, she was found to be suffering from severe psychological distress.

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