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Agence France Presse

EU Honours Jailed Chinese Dissident Hu Despite Beijing Pressure


Hu Jia, who campaigs for civil rights, the environment and AIDS awareness

STRASBOURG - The European Parliament on Thursday awarded a
prestigious rights prize to jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia on the eve
of a key Beijing summit -- despite pressure from China not to honour

In a letter to senior lawmakers and the president of the
assembly, China had warned that giving the Sakharov Prize to the civil
rights campaigner could damage ties with Europe.

Beijing hit out
when the award was announced, calling the move "gross interference" in
its domestic affairs, while Hu's wife and other dissidents saw it as a
vindication of the ailing activist's work.

To widespread
applause, President Hans-Gert Poettering told the chamber that "by
awarding the Sakharov Prize to Hu Jia, the European Parliament is
sending out a clear signal of support to all those who defend human
rights in China."

He said Hu had "spoken out against oppression
in Tibet," and described him as "one of the real defenders of human
rights in the People's Republic of China".

But China's foreign
ministry expressed "strong dissatisfaction at the decision by the
European Parliament to give the award to a jailed criminal in China, in
disregard of our repeated representations.

"This is gross
interference in China's domestic affairs," said ministry spokesman Liu
Jianchao. "I don't believe that anyone gets anywhere by interfering in
the affairs of others."

Hu's wife, who says he is suffering in prison from liver cirrhosis and anaemia, welcomed the award as did other dissidents.

"I think Hu Jia would be very happy because his work has now received everyone's validation," Zeng Jinyan, Hu's wife, told AFP.

Zhiyong, a longtime dissident who lost a leg during the 1989 Tiananmen
Square protests, said: "It will help to promote the protection of human
rights in China. This is a good thing for China's people."

Strasbourg, the head of the EU parliament's liberal group, Graham
Watson, told AFP that Chinese officials had gone to great lengths to
try to influence the result.

"By letter, by email, and they've even tried by telephone," he said.

Poettering was one to receive a letter from China's ambassador.

"This prize is awarded in Strasbourg, not in Beijing," Poettering said on the sidelines of the session.

letter, from Ambassador Song Zhe, warned: "If the European Parliament
should award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the
Chinese peoples once again and bring serious damage to China-EU

The 35-year-old is known for his campaign for civil
rights, the environment and AIDS victims but is serving a
three-and-a-half year prison sentence for subversion.

He was
arrested last year after giving testimony on human rights in China to
the European Parliament's human rights sub-committee by

China angrily called Hu a "criminal" when he was considered a top candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.

leaders are to hold a summit in Beijing on Friday with Chinese and
other Asian leaders, although China said the summit would not be
affected by the award.

Rights in China are a constant theme at
summits but this time Europe is trying to get China to back
international efforts to end the financial crisis.

"We hope that
the recognition the European Parliament has given Hu Jia... will
demonstrate to China's leaders the enormous esteem the international
community holds for his important work as a human rights defender and
that China will release him immediately," said US State Department
spokesman Gordon Duguid.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier called on Beijing to commute Hu's sentence -- almost 12
months after an official visit by the Dalai Lama to Berlin halted
rights dialogue between the two powers.

"I beseech the Chinese
government to take this opportunity to consider the possibility of
suspending (Hu's) sentence," Steinmeier said.

New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch called on Beijing to immediately exonerate or grant medical parole to Hu.

Sakharov Prize, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is in its
20th year. Previous winners will be invited to the presentation of the
50,000-euro (64,000-dollar) award on December 17.

Others short-listed for the prize were Belarus opposition leader Alexandr Kozulin and Congolese abbot Apollinaire Malu Malu.

winners include former South African leader Nelson Mandela, detained
Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former UN secretary
general Kofi Annan.

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