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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hu Jia wins the European Parliament's most prestigious human rights' prize, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, despite warnings from China

Chinese Activist Wins Rights Prize

by Jim Yardley, New York Times, October 23, 2008

BEIJING — Hu Jia, a soft-spoken, bespectacled advocate for democracy and human rights in China, was awarded Europe’s most prestigious human rights prize on Thursday. The award was a pointed rebuke of China’s ruling Communist Party that comes as European leaders are arriving in Beijing for a weekend summit.

Mr. Hu, 35, was chosen by the European Parliament as this year’s recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, despite warnings from Beijing that his selection would harm relations with the European Union.

Last year, Mr. Hu testified via video link before a hearing of the European Parliament about China’s human rights situation. Weeks later, Mr. Hu was jailed and later sentenced to three and a half years in prison on a conviction for subversion based on his critical writings about Communist Party rule.

Mr. Hu has been one of China’s leading figures on a range of human rights issues, while also speaking out on behalf of AIDS sufferers and for environmental protection. His selection for the prize comes after he had been considered a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize, only to lose to the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari.

“Hu Jia is one of the real defenders of human rights in the People’s Republic of China,” said European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering. “The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China.”

The timing may make for a frosty weekend in Beijing where European leaders are to meet with top Chinese officials at the Asia-Europe summit. Behind the scenes, China had lobbied against Mr. Hu’s candidacy for the Sakharov Prize. Song Zhe, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union, wrote a critical Oct. 16 letter to the president of the European Parliament.

“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-E.U. relations,” Song wrote, according to The Associated Press.

China had also warned against awarding Mr. Hu the Nobel Peace Prize, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang had described him in scathing terms as a convicted criminal.

“The Chinese government will be upset,” said Teng Biao, a legal expert who has co-authored essays with Mr. Hu. “But as a responsible nation that is trying to integrate into the international community, China has to understand that its conduct should follow international protocols. It should embrace the criticism as an opportunity to improve China’s human rights condition.”

Mr. Hu remains imprisoned in Beijing and could not be reached for comment. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, also could not be contacted. She has lived for months under house arrest with the couple’s infant daughter.

The award to Mr. Hu is an embarrassment for the Communist Party less than two months after China’s successful staging of the Olympic Games. During the Olympics, the Chinese government proved it could smoothly manage the world’s biggest sporting event, but the government also prevented demonstrations at designated protest zones, instituted broad censorship restrictions on the domestic media and placed numerous dissidents under house arrest or surveillance.

Mr. Hu’s conviction in April was part of a nationwide crackdown against dissidents in what many human rights advocates considered a pre-Olympic silencing campaign. A devout Buddhist, Mr. Hu has dedicated himself to a range of issues during the past 12 years, including environmental protection, helping AIDS sufferers, championing the legal rights of Chinese citizens and promoting greater democracy.

He also used a personal website and emails to become a one-man clearinghouse of information on human rights abuses and other controversies that officials preferred to keep silent.

“Whatever he does, he always stands in the forefront,” Mr. Teng said in an earlier interview. “Everything he wrote, everything he said, is straight from his heart. We have poor people and marginalized people in society whose voices are being muzzled. Hu Jia was trying to be the spokesman for the unheard voices.”

Mr. Hu graduated from Beijing’s Capital University of Economics and Trade in 1996 and almost immediately plunged into China’s nascent civil society. He traveled to Inner Mongolia to plant trees as a measure to slow the advance of the Gobi Desert.

By 2000, China was facing the rapid spread of AIDS, a problem the government had initially denied and remained reluctant to publicly confront. Mr. Hu formed a non-governmental organization, Loving Source, and focused on caring for people infected by a blood selling scandal in Henan Province.

Gao Yaojie, a prominent AIDS activist in China, recalled how Mr. Hu once rode a bicycle down a rutted dirt road to reach an isolated village decimated by AIDS. The road became narrower and potted with holes until Mr. Hu simply put the bike on his shoulder and walked to deliver help to a village where local officials where trying to cover-up the disease.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Dr. Gao said, in an interview earlier this month. “The only thing we did was to help HIV positive people. But we were always under great pressure from the government.”

Mr. Hu later began joining Internet petition campaigns calling for the release of political prisoners, while also calling on authorities to uphold the legal rights of citizens written in the Chinese Constitution.

His activism quickly made him a target. In 2006, he spent 168 days under house arrest. Rather than disappear from public view, Mr. Hu produced a documentary, “Prisoner in Freedom City,” in which he filmed state security agents harassing his wife as she tried to leave their apartment complex, which is known as Bo Bo Freedom City.

Indeed, as Mr. Hu faced constant surveillance and harassment — he once was taken away for 41 days — he continued to use the Internet to push for political reform and publicize human rights abuses. His testimony via video link before the European parliamentary committee came last November.

“It is ironic that one of the people in charge of organizing the Olympic Games is the head of the Bureau of Public Security, which is responsible for so many human rights violations,” he testified. “It is very serious that the official promises are not being kept before the Games.”

Huang Yuanxi contributed research

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