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Liu Xiaobo, jailed in China, honored in absentia by Nobel committee

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An empty chair marks the absence of jailed Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, at the Friday ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

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By Debbi Wilgoren , Keith B. Richburg and Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 10, 2010; 2:15 PM

OSLO - The blue-and-white upholstered chair reserved for him was empty. His words were spoken not in his own voice, but by the Norwegian actress and movie director Liv Ullmann.

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While the Nobel committee honored him with its prestigious Peace Prize in Oslo on Friday, Chinese dissident and intellectual Liu Xiaobo sat in isolation in a jail cell, some 4,000 miles away.

Yet his campaign to bring individual freedoms and democracy to China was recognized at a ceremony made more visible, in many ways, by Beijing's efforts to suppress it.

"Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong. He must be released," Nobel committee chairman Torbjorn Jagland said as the audience of more than 1,000 dignitaries, diplomats and officials -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- responded with sustained applause and a standing ovation.

Jagland then placed the medal and certificate normally awarded to the laureate in the empty chair upon the stage, triggering another ovation.

An oversize portrait of Liu, 54, had been hung on the stage. At the point in the ceremony where the honoree or a close relative would normally speak, Ullmann read from Liu's final statement before being sentenced to 11 years in jail for political incitement.

"I have once again been shoved into the dock by the enemy mentality of the regime," Liu said on Dec. 23, 2009. "But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by [my] convictions. ... I have no enemies, and no hatred."

Hatred, Liu continued , "can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy."

Before the ceremony, as attendees lined up outside city hall to enter, a police marching band performed Christmas carols, supporters handed out buttons emblazoned with an illustration of the laureate's smiling face and demonstrators across the street shouted "Free Liu Xiaobo!"

Organizers hope attendees left the ceremony with a more sobering image. "I think they will remember the empty chair," said Nobel committee Secretary Geir Lundestad. "[Its symbolism] speaks volumes about this year's laureate and the importance of the prize."

About 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong attended the ceremony , broadcasts of which were blocked on television and Internet inside China.

In the country of 1.3 billion people, a few dozen pro-democracy activists staged China's sole authorized celebration, uncorking a bottle of champagne Friday outside a huge Hong Kong tower.


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