'Empty chair' represents Nobel laureate
Oslo - As China tightens its grip on dissidents at home, dignitaries in Norway celebrate this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, imprisoned Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, with solemn ceremony - and an empty chair.
Liu won't be able to collect the prestigious $1.4m award at the Oslo ceremony on Friday - the first time in 74 years that it has not been handed over.
Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad said Liu will be represented "by an empty chair ... the strongest possible argument" for awarding it to him.
China was infuriated when the prestigious prize was awarded to the 54-year-old literary critic, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence on subversion charges brought after he co-authored a bold call for sweeping changes to Beijing's one-party communist political system.
Beijing described the award as an attack on its political and legal system and has placed Liu's supporters, including his wife Liu Xia, under house arrest to prevent anyone from picking up his prize.
On Friday, uniformed and plainclothes officers guarded the entrance to the compound in central Beijing where Liu Xia has lived since the October announcement that her husband would receive the prize.
Serbia has a change of heart
China also tightened a wide-ranging clampdown on dissidents and blocked some news websites ahead of the awarding ceremony.
China has also pressured foreign diplomats to stay away from the Nobel ceremony. China and 17 other countries have declined to attend, including Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. At least 46 of the 65 countries with embassies in Oslo have accepted invitations.
Serbia, which had said it would stay away, announced on Thursday that it had changed its mind and would now attend.
Lundestad said countries gave various reasons for not attending, but some were "obviously affected by China".
China warned that attending the ceremony would be seen as a sign of disrespect.
"We hope those countries that have received the invitation can tell right from wrong, uphold justice," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said In Beijing.
Chinese dissidents to attend
About 1 000 guests, including ambassadors, royalty and other VIPs will take their seats in Oslo's modernist City Hall for the two-hour ceremony. Among the invited are US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and US Ambassador Barry White.
Also, about 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong will attend.
A torchlight parade through Oslo's streets will follow, with chosen guests dining at a banquet with Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja.
Meanwhile, a ceremony in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, honours the other Nobel laureates. Winners in literature, physics, chemistry and economics will be presented their awards by Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf, followed by a lavish banquet.
It will be the first time the Nobel Peace Prize will not be handed over since 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting the award.
The prize can be collected only by the laureate or close family members. Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov of the Soviet Union and Lech Walesa of Poland were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.
Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairperson Thorbjoern Jagland said on Thursday that awarding the prize to Liu was not "a prize against China", and he urged Beijing that as a world power it "should become used to being debated and criticised".
Ahead of the ceremony, about 100 protesters chanting "Freedom to Liu! Freedom for China!" marched to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo on Thursday and tried to deliver a petition with more than 100 000 signatures urging the dissident's release from prison.
"Liu should not be jailed for his words. It's against the Chinese Constitution," said demonstrator Renee Xia. "The Chinese government is violating its own constitution by criminalising free speech."
The Norwegian-Chinese Association plans a pro-China rally outside the Norwegian Parliament during Friday's Nobel ceremony.