Beijing issues warning over peace prize choice

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The Independent Online

The Chinese government has intervened in the choice of recipient for the Nobel Peace Prize, warning the Nobel committee not to give the award to the jailed dissident Hu Jia. Mr Hu and his wife, Zeng Jinyan, live under house arrest in Beijing with their infant daughter and have been included in the early list of favourites for this year's accolade, which is due to be announced in two weeks.

He is China's most renowned human rights defender and has spoken out on Aids, Tibetan autonomy and free speech. In April, Mr Hu was jailed for three-and-a-half years for "incitement to subvert state power" by writing articles about freedom and talking to foreign journalists.

The possibility of the award going to a Chinese activist has been on the cards since 2001, when Professor Geir Lundestad, the influential secretary of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, said: "Sooner or later the Chinese question must be tackled."

The timing of the row is significant as it comes shortly after the Olympic Games, which the Chinese authorities used as an international "coming out" party. But activists say the Olympics did nothing to improve the human rights situation in China, and Beijing fell short on many of its promises to improve freedoms for its citizens.

A total of 197 people and organisations are up for the Nobel Peace Prize but the list is kept secret. The winner of this year's prize, worth nearly £850,000, will be announced in the Norwegian capital on 10 October. It has a particular importance this year as it is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, China insists the award should go to the "right person". Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said that awarding the peace prize to someone like Hu Jia would not be welcomed by Beijing.

"I don't know where this news comes from, but we think that the Nobel Peace Prize, if it is awarded to somebody who really protects world peace, should be given to the right person," he said. "So we hope that related parties make the correct choice on this issue and do not do anything that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people." Two prominent Norwegians have already backed the idea of the award being given to a Chinese dissident, with one specifying Mr Hu for the prize.

Stein Tonnesson, the head of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, said his top choice would be Mr Hu as "he has become the most well-known Chinese dissident". He added that, following the Olympics, China should be able to deal with someone like Mr Hu winning the Nobel Peace Prize without getting upset and breaking off relations with the Norwegian government, which appoints the Nobel Prize Committee.

Mr Tonnesson's views are seen as close to the inside track on who might win and, in the absence of real information about how decisions about the award are reached, his opinion is watched closely. He has also said that Zimbabwe's former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is a possibility, as is Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician and anti-corruption activist who was freed in July after being held hostage by Marxist Farc rebels for six years. Last year, Mr Tonnesson correctly guessed the prize would be related to climate change, and that the former US vice-president Al Gore would share it with the United Nations climate panel.

Janne Haaland Matlary, a professor of international politics at Oslo University, agreed the time was right to reward a Chinese human rights campaigner. "During the Games, we saw there was quite a lot of repression – this very immature kind of handling of human rights and of democracy, trying to censor journalists," she said. "Obviously, this is a golden opportunity to underline that this is not acceptable."

She added that other possible candidates included a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Do, and a Russian human rights lawyer, Lidia Yusupova. This year's nominees are known to include a Chinese dissident, Wei Jingsheng, the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, the Irish rock star and activist Bob Geldof, the former Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – for his alternative fuels initiative – and the environmental group Greenpeace.

The Dalai Lama won the peace prize 19 years ago, angering the Chinese, who consider him a separatist leader who tries to cause unrest in Tibet.

Nobel Laureates: Dissident winners

Shirin Ebadi, 2003

The first Muslim woman – and Iranian – to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Ms Ebadi is one of the key campaigners for the rights of women and children in Iran. In 1975 she became the first female judge in Iran, but was forced to stand down following the advent of the Islamic republic. She went on to start her own law firm which took on many politically sensitive cases that other Iranian lawyers wouldn't touch, and in 2000 she was arrested as a result of her human rights campaigns.

Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991

The leader of Burma's pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest by the country's military government for most of the past 19 years. In 1990 she led the National League for Democracy to a comprehensive victory in Burma's general election, but the regime refused to let her take control or allow her any role in government. The daughter of national hero General Aung San (who was assassinated when she was two), she has become a symbol of hope for the Burmese people.

Dalai Lama, 1989

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been in exile from Tibet since 1959, yet has continued to promote peaceful solutions in his country's struggle for self-rule against China. A global figure who has met numerous world leaders and seen the popularity of Buddhism grow rapidly in the West, he has played a fundamental role in publicising the plight of Tibet and preserving the country's traditions. He is both the spiritual leader of the country and a political leader of the 100,000 Tibetans currently exiled in India.