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Jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate celebrated

China urged to free Liu, whose chair sat empty

Torbjorn Jagland, the Nobel committee’s chairman, looked at the Peace Prize medal and certificate that he hoped to hand to Chinese dissident and intellectual Liu Xiaobo but instead placed on an empty chair. A portrait of Liu is seen in the background. Torbjorn Jagland, the Nobel committee’s chairman, looked at the Peace Prize medal and certificate that he hoped to hand to Chinese dissident and intellectual Liu Xiaobo but instead placed on an empty chair. A portrait of Liu is seen in the background. (Geir Lundestad/Reuters)
By Debbi Wilgoren, Keith B. Richburg, and Chris Richards
Washington Post / December 11, 2010

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OSLO — The blue-and-white upholstered chair reserved for him was empty. His words were spoken not in his voice, but by the Norwegian actress and movie director Liv Ullmann.

While the Nobel committee honored Liu Xiaobo with its prestigious Peace Prize in Oslo yesterday, the Chinese dissident and intellectual sat in isolation in a jail cell, some 4,000 miles away.

Yet his campaign to bring individual freedoms and democracy to China was recognized at a ceremony made more visible, in many ways, by Beijing’s efforts to suppress it.

“Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong. He must be released,’’ the Nobel committee’s chairman, Torbjorn Jagland, said to sustained applause from an audience of more than 1,000 dignitaries, diplomats, and officials that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Jagland then placed the medal and certificate normally awarded to the laureate in the empty chair upon the stage, triggering another ovation.

An oversize portrait of Liu, 54, had been hung on the stage. At the point in the ceremony where the honoree or a close relative would normally speak, Ullmann read from Liu’s final statement before being sentenced to 11 years in jail for political incitement.

“I have once again been shoved into the dock by the enemy mentality of the regime,’’ Liu said on Dec. 23, 2009. “But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by [my] convictions. . . . I have no enemies, and no hatred.’’

Hatred, Liu continued, “can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy.’’

Before the ceremony, as attendees lined up outside city hall to enter, a police marching band performed Christmas carols, supporters handed out buttons emblazoned with an illustration of the laureate’s smiling face, and demonstrators across the street shouted “Free Liu Xiaobo!’’

Organizers hoped that attendees left the ceremony with a more sobering image. “I think they will remember the empty chair,’’ said Geir Lundestad, the Nobel committee secretary. The symbolism “speaks volumes about this year’s laureate and the importance of the prize.’’

About 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong attended the ceremony, broadcasts of which were blocked on television and the Internet inside China. In the country of 1.3 billion people, a few dozen prodemocracy activists staged China’s sole authorized celebration, uncorking a bottle of champagne yesterday outside a huge Hong Kong tower.

The CNN and BBC television channels went blank in Beijing as the event began, and Chinese television news led programs with the latest economic figures and worries over inflation. Some text messages containing the words “Liu Xiaobo’’ and “Nobel prize’’ were blocked from delivery.

Beijing police maintained a heavy presence outside the apartment compound of Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, whose telephone and Internet communications have been cut off since the announcement of the prize. The government prohibited the Lius and their family members from attending the ceremony, meaning that the $1.4 million cash prize went uncollected, and barred other activists from traveling or gathering at cafes or public places for fear that they would find a way to celebrate the occasion.

The crackdown triggered outrage and condemnation from around the world. It was the first time the award was not presented to a laureate or a close family member since 1936, when Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist jailed by the Nazi regime, was honored.

China broke off trade talks with Norway after Liu’s selection was announced in October. Foreign embassies in Norway were warned that if they sent representatives to the Nobel ceremony, they would risk unspoken diplomatic “consequences.’’

At least 15 countries — China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Egypt, Sudan, Cuba, and Morocco — said they would stay away. But the government of Serbia, which had planned to boycott to maintain good relations with China, reversed itself yesterday in the face of an outcry at home and from the European Union.

Liu was jailed after writing Charter ’08, a prodemocracy manifesto that was published Dec. 10, 2008, and has been signed by more than 10,000 people inside and outside China.

President Obama, honored with the prestigious prize a year ago, said in a statement that Liu “is far more deserving of this award than I was.’’

“The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible,’’ Obama said.

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