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Jailed in China, Dissident Liu Xiaobo Honored With Empty Chair at Nobel Ceremony

December 10, 2010 at 5:46 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was a day of high ceremony in Oslo, Norway, the day when the Nobel Peace Prize was supposed to be handed out. Instead, the winner of the prize remained in a Chinese prison.

Trumpets echoed through the city hall of Oslo, as the king and queen of Norway and dignitaries from dozens of countries took their places. They came to honor Chinese dissident and literary critic Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced last Christmas Day to 11 years behind bars.

Norwegian Nobel Committee Chair Thorbjorn Jagland made the announcement.

THORBJORN JAGLAND, chairman, Norwegian Nobel Committee: We regret that the laureate is not present. He is in isolation in a prison in Northeast China. Nor can the laureate’s wife, Liu Xia, or his closest relatives be with us. No medal or diploma will therefore be presented here today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Instead, an empty chair was left where Liu would have sat, his award placed there.

It was the first time a Peace Prize Winner had been prevented from attending the ceremony since 1936, when Adolf Hitler barred a German pacifist from accepting the award. China had also barred Liu’s close relatives from attending, so Norwegian actress Liv Ullman read from his court appeal last December.

LIV ULLMAN, actress: “I hope that I will be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisitions, and that, from now on, no one will be incriminated because of speech. Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Liu’s crime, under Chinese law, was authoring an open letter called Charter 08. It called for open elections, free speech and the rule of law.

He had also been a leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989, and served several other prison terms for dissident activities. The Chinese government angrily protested awarding the Peace Prize to Liu. Today, a state-run news channel denounced the award again, part of a concerted campaign that’s been going on for weeks.

WOMAN (through translator): We are firmly against the attempt by any country or individual to use the Nobel Peace Prize to interfere in China’s internal affairs and infringe upon China’s judicial sovereignty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Security was tight outside Liu’s apartment building in Beijing, where his wife has been incommunicado, as police shooed away inquiring journalists.

The regime also took extensive measures to censor foreign news coverage seen inside China. Blackouts affected CNN and the BBC, and the so-called great firewall blocked many news Web sites. Nevertheless, Twitter in China lit up with talk of how to watch the ceremony, despite the blackout.

On the diplomatic front, Beijing threatened reprisals against countries who sent envoys to the ceremony in Oslo. And 16 nations skipped the proceedings, including Russia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

But the Nobel Committee’s Jagland insisted the prize wasn’t meant as an insult.

THORBJORN JAGLAND: China’s new status entails increased responsibility. China must be prepared for criticism and regard it as positive. It has been important to remind the world that the rights so widely enjoyed today were fought and won by persons who took great risks. They did so for others, for all of us. This is why Liu Xiaobo deserves our support today.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Liu has been persecuted for promoting human rights.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We continue to call for his release. And, today, we call for the release of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

JEFFREY BROWN: And last year’s Nobel Peace laureate, President Obama, issued a statement lauding Liu, saying, in part, “Mr. Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was.”

In a 2008 interview, Liu spoke of his work.

LIU XIAOBO, Nobel Peace laureate (through translator): It’s not true that the government can simply ignore us, that they don’t care what we do. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t go to such lengths to monitor and control us. My optimism about China is not something I judge by what the authorities are doing, but by the growing power of ordinary people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even in his absence, the power of Liu’s own words echoed in Oslo today. Nobel officials said that, from his prison cell, he had dedicated the prize to the — quote — “lost souls of Tiananmen Square.”