China condemns 'insult' of award for jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo

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China responded furiously yesterday after the country's most famous dissident, the imprisoned pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his long and non-violent struggle for human rights.

China described the award to Mr Liu as "an insult". Mr Liu is serving 11 years in prison for subversion, but the decision cast a spotlight on the country's human rights record, with US President Barack Obama leading calls for Mr Liu's immediate release.

Mr Obama said in a statement that the activist had "sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs" as supporters hailed the award as a victory for the human rights struggle. The Dalai Lama and other global leaders used the opportunity to call for the release of all prisoners of conscience.

Chinese state media imposed a blackout of the honour, and the country's efficient system of internet censorship, popularly known as the Great Firewall of China, blocked reports about the Nobel prize which highlighted Mr Liu's calls for peaceful political change. China said the award would harm relations with Norway and summoned Oslo's ambassador to Beijing to make a formal protest. The Norwegians dismissed the warning as petty.

"China's new status must entail increased responsibility," the Nobel committee said in awarding the prize to Mr Liu. "Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China."

Mr Liu, 54, a political essayist and democracy campaigner, was jailed last year for his role in writing a manifesto, Charter 08, with other Chinese activists that called for free speech and multi-party elections. It was one of the longest sentences handed to a political dissident since the crime of inciting subversion was established in 1997.

"To me, the Nobel Peace Prize should be given to those who advocate the harmony of nations, who seek to improve friendship between countries," said the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ma Chaoxu. "But Liu Xiaobo is a criminal sentenced by the judicial administration in China because he broke the law, and his actions are the absolute opposite of what the Nobel Peace Prize is about."

The award – the first to the Chinese dissident community since China began economic, but not political, reforms more than 30 years ago – may have major repercussions in China. Mr Liu has been a marginal figure in that society but by granting the award, millions of people will be asking who he is and why he is in prison. It also means 10 years of constant reminders for the Chinese government that it has a Nobel laureate languishing in jail. The constant media attention on the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest in Rangoon, is something that Beijing would be keen to avoid.

The Nobel committee praised Mr Liu's pacifist approach and cited his participation in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He and three other activists persuaded students to peacefully leave the square hours before the deadly crackdown on 4 June.

Chinese authorities would not allow access to Mr Liu in prison yesterday and it was not known if he had received the news. His wife, Liu Xia, was not allowed to meet reporters, with her Beijing home surrounded by police. But in a statement released through a US-based rights group, she said: "It is a true honour for him and one for which I know he would say he is not worthy."

Mrs Liu, who planned to visit him at his prison 300 miles from Beijing today to tell him the news, thanked former Czech president Vaclav Havel and two former Nobel prize winners, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for nominating him.

"I would like to take this opportunity to renew my call to the government of China to release Liu Xiaobo and other prisoners of conscience who have been imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression," said the Dalai Lama, whose Nobel prize award in 1989 also infuriated the Chinese. China's economic boom is helping to prop up the shaky global economy, and few governments have been forthright in denouncing Beijing's lack of freedom. The award comes days before the Communist Party leadership meets to work out succession issues, with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao due to step down in two years. Mr Liu now joins Aung San Suu Kyi and Carl von Ossietzky, the German pacifist who won the 1935 prize while jailed by the Nazis, as the only Nobel Peace Prize laureates to be awarded the prize while in detention.

Shang Baojun, Mr Liu's lawyer, said the award was great news for the Chinese people. "We had hoped for many years that one day we would win the Nobel Prize, and today this dream became reality," he said. "I hope that his case and his winning this great prize will be an opportunity to improve freedom of speech, democracy and the legal system in China," he said.

Liu's last words before prison

In December 2009 Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail. Here are extracts from the translation of a "final statement" he wrote two days before his incarceration began.

"I have no enemies, and no hatred....I firmly believe that China's political progress will never stop, and I'm full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme

....I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where all citizens' speeches are treated the same; here, different values, ideas, beliefs, political views... here compete with each other and coexist peacefully; here, majority and minority opinions will be given equal guarantees, in particular, political views different from those in power will be fully respected and protected; here, all political views will be spread in the sunlight for the people to choose; all citizens will be able to express their political views without fear, and will never be politically persecuted for voicing dissent; I hope to be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.

... Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth."