Europe vexes China with rights award to dissident

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 23, 2008 

Zeng Jinyan speaks to reporters on April 3, 2008, after a court in Beijing sentenced her husband, prominent civil rights campaigner Hu Jia, to a three-and-a-half-year prison term for "inciting subversion."

TIM JOHNSON / MCT

BEIJING — The European Union on Thursday awarded its top annual prize on human rights to brash dissident Hu Jia, defying China's admonition that such an action would seriously damage its relations with Europe.

The European Parliament called Hu, a 35-year-old activist on democracy, environment and AIDS issues, "one of the real defenders of human rights" in China.

Hours before the award, China labeled Hu a "criminal." Security officials jailed him last December for posting articles online and giving interviews to foreign journalists. In April, he was sentenced to 3 { years in prison.

"The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China," President Hans-Gert Poettering said.

The award was a poke in the eye to China as it hosted dozens of Asian and European leaders in Beijing to discuss the global financial crisis and other issues. The biennial Asia-Europe Meeting draws together leaders of 43 nations that represent half the global economy.

Human rights and press freedom groups hailed the awarding of the Sakharov Prize to Hu, saying it signaled Beijing that other nations are watchful of its rights practices despite its rising global stature, symbolized by its successful hosting of the Summer Olympics in August.

Earlier this week, China's ambassador to Brussels warned in a letter to Poettering that giving the Sakharov Prize to Hu "would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations."

A humanitarian activist for more than a decade, Hu was involved with helping HIV/AIDS patients and later took up civil rights and environmental causes. He was reportedly on a shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month, which went to Finnish peace mediator Martti Ahtisaari.

Police arrested Hu last December shortly after he spoke to the European Parliament via video conference to criticize human rights abuses in China.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said hours before the award was announced Thursday that Beijing had warned the European Parliament through diplomatic channels against honoring Hu.

"To issue an award to such a criminal amounts to interference in China's judicial sovereignty and is totally against the purpose of this prize," Qin said.

Police have monitored and harassed Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, and their infant daughter at their housing compound in eastern Beijing since his arrest. When foreign journalists approach their building, guards scurry to string up yellow crime-scene tape barring entry.

Zeng, herself a noted rights activist, managed to speak to a reporter from Agence France Presse after the award was announced, telling the journalist that intimidation of dissidents in China is severe but that freedom must prevail.

"To talk about human rights is every individual's fundamental right. It is not something that you talk about when authorities let you, and that you do not talk about when authorities do not agree," Zeng told the agency.

Hu is thought to be in declining health from a liver ailment while in prison.

The prize, which comes with $64,000, has been given annually since 1988, and will be awarded in Strasbourg, France, on Dec. 17.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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