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Why Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize could harm Chinese rights activists

The Chinese government said the award to Liu Xiaobo 'profanes the Nobel Peace Prize.' The immediate future may see more activists arrested, warns Mr. Liu's lawyer.

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“In practice these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens,” the committee’s statement said.

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Liu, a scholarly literary critic and political essayist, co-authored “Charter 08” – an appeal launched on the Internet and subsequently signed by thousands of Chinese citizens – demanding an end to the ruling Communist party’s monopoly on power, free speech, and religious freedom, among other reforms.

He was arrested just before the Charter was published in December 2008, and a year later was sentenced to one of the most severe sentences in recent memory for the crime of “incitement to subversion of state power.”

“Liu was sentenced to eleven years in prison for expressing his views” said Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, explaining the award. “It was unavoidable for the committee to award him this year.”

Record of pro-democracy activism

Liu has been active in the Chinese pro-democracy movement for more than two decades. He took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, drawing attention to himself by negotiating the withdrawal of most of the students from the square before the Army moved in, thus averting more bloodshed.

He spent 18 months in jail for his role at Tiananmen, and was later banned from teaching. In 1995 he was sentenced to three years of “re-education through labor” for writing essays critical of the government.

This work, and the long jail sentence he is currently serving, made Liu “the foremost symbol of this wide ranging struggle for human rights in China,” the Nobel committee statement said.

China embarrassed

While the Chinese government put on a angry face following the announcement, Beijing will likely also be embarrassed at Friday’s award.

“This award will no doubt infuriate the Chinese government by putting its human rights record squarely back into the international debate,” says Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But this Nobel Prize honors not only Liu’s unflinching advocacy; it honors all those in China who struggle daily to make the government more accountable.”

Mr. Jagland said that while China’s new economic power might make some cautious about criticizing it, “we are giving the message now that it is absolutely necessary to keep an eye on what is going on inside China. If you are not doing that you are betraying human rights defenders in China and…you are lowering the standards we have set up in the international community.”

IN PICTURES: Liu Xiaobo: Nobel Peace Prize recipient