Leaders urge angry China to free Nobel laureate

2010-10-08 22:57

Washington - US President Barack Obama led international calls on Friday for the release of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, after the veteran democracy campaigner was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Obama, last year's Nobel peace laureate, joined European powers in condemning China's human rights record, and criticised Beijing for failing to match economic growth with political reform.

"The Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law," Obama said in a written statement hours after the announcement by the Norwegian committee.

Liu was sentenced last December to 11 years behind bars for subversion, following the 2008 release of "Charter 08", a manifesto for reform signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals, academics and writers.

Beijing blasts committee

The award, news of which was blocked in China, was hailed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as "a recognition of the growing international consensus for improving human rights practices and culture around the world".

But Beijing fumed that the Norwegian committee had "violated" the integrity of its award, and a string of criticism from the US and Europe and calls for Liu's release did little to soothe its anger.

"This decision embodies the defence of human rights everywhere in the world," said France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

"France, like the European Union, expressed its concern after his arrest and has called for him to be released on a number of occasions. She repeats that call."

There was a similar response from the German government.

"The (German) government has pressed for his release in the past and will continue to do so," spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters.

'Let him get prize in person'

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, fresh from a fractious summit with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, said the award served as a rallying call for other pro-democracy campaigners.

And the bloc's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said she hoped the jailed dissident would be able to travel to Oslo on December 10 to pick up his prize.

Lui's Nobel reflected his "leading role in calling for democratic and rights-based political reform in China, and I hope he will be able to receive his prize in person," she said in a statement.

Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister of Norway, which hosts of the peace prize, made a point of congratulating Liu within minutes of the announcement in Oslo.

China had warned that honouring Liu would be regarded as an unfriendly gesture, and on Friday Beijing said it had summoned the country's ambassador.

The five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who pick the Peace Prize laureate, are appointed by Norway's parliament but are independent of the government and the legislature.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and 1989 Nobel peace laureate, called for Liu's immediate release.

Tears of joy

The Nobel committee's choice showed international recognition of "the increasing voices among the Chinese people in pushing China towards political, legal and constitutional reforms", he said.

The award was praised by Taiwan's Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou, who described it as an "historic" moment for human rights in China.

And a friend of the new laureate and fellow author, Yu Jie, who published a book critical of the Chinese premier in August in defiance of a warning he could be jailed, said he stayed up late to find out who won the award - and cried when he learned that Liu had been chosen.

The Nobel "will actually be much better for people like me and other critics and activists, because China will think twice before they put another person like Liu Xiaobo in prison," Yu said, speaking via a translator.

But veteran Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who spent nearly two decades in prison for his stinging calls for democracy in China, criticised the award, saying other Chinese dissidents were more deserving.