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ACTIVIST WINS EU HUMAN RIGHTS PRIZE, DESPITE BEIJING PRESSURE

The European Parliament has awarded its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to jailed Chinese activist Hu Jia, despite a warning from Beijing that selecting the political prisoner would damage EU-Chinese relations.

Hu, a Beijing-based human rights, environmental and AIDS activist, "is one of the real defenders of human rights in the People's Republic of China," said Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament. "By awarding the Sakharov prize to Hu Jia, the European Parliament is sending out a clear signal of support to all those who defend human rights in China."

China's government had discouraged the EU from awarding the prize to Hu. In a letter to Pöttering before the award was announced, China's ambassador to the EU wrote, "If the European Parliament should award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations."

Qin Gang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, called Hu a "criminal". He told a press conference in Beijing: "To issue an award to such a criminal is interference in China's judicial sovereignty and totally against the initial purpose of this prize."

Hu was sentenced to three and a half years in jail in April on subversion charges for making comments to foreign media prior to the Olympics that were critical of China's human rights record. Human Rights Watch said at the time that state security convictions were the authorities' "weapon of choice" to take high-profile activists out of action ahead of the Games.

IFEX members applauded Hu's award, and reiterated their long-standing call for Hu's release.

"The Chinese government should see Hu Jia as the European Parliament clearly does: not as an enemy or embarrassment, but rather as someone whose courageous advocacy embodies the best of China," Human Rights Watch said.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) said, "The Chinese authorities are making a big mistake by treating him as a criminal and by threatening both the Nobel Peace Prize jury and the European Parliament's members."

The Chinese government said prior to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month that the jury would be ill-advised to award it to Hu, who had been regarded as a contender. Finnish statesman Martti Ahtisaari won.

Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, also an outspoken human rights advocate, and their baby daughter remain under house arrest in Beijing.

Zeng welcomed the award as a sign that Europe was paying attention to human rights in China and was concerned about her husband's case. She told the "Guardian": "It is also a (sign of) approval of his work. I guess he must be very glad if he knows about it."

Zeng said the family's situation was improving and that she was able to go out comparatively freely. She visited Hu last week and guards allowed him to hold their child for the first time. Supporters have been concerned about Hu's health because he suffers from liver disease.

Previous winners of the Sakharov Prize include South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The 50,000 Euro (US$64,200) award will be presented in Strasbourg, France, on 17 December, just a week after the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It remains doubtful whether Zeng will be allowed to travel to Europe to receive it on Hu's behalf.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/6z85j5
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/6hlf7r
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29071
- Sakharov Prize website: http://tinyurl.com/6lnkcr
- "Guardian": http://tinyurl.com/67msjr
(Photo of Hu Jia courtesy of Ng Han Guan/AP)

(29 October 2008)

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