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Nobel peace ceremony goes ahead with empty chair

Nobel committee holds peace prize ceremony with an empty chair for the jailed Chinese laureate

Clapping solemnly, dignitaries in Norway celebrated this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, with an empty chair.

Friday’s ceremony was the first time in 74 years the prestigious $1.4 million award was not handed over, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.

China was infuriated when the 54-year-old literary critic won, describing the award as an attack on its political and legal system. Authorities have placed Liu’s supporters, including his wife Liu Xia, under house arrest to prevent anyone from picking up his prize.

In Beijing, both CNN and BBC TV went black at 8 p.m. local time, exactly when the Oslo ceremony was taking place. Security outside Liu’s apartment in Beijing was heavy and several dozen journalists were herded away by uniformed police to a cordoned-off area.

The last time a Nobel Peace Prize was not handed out was in 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting his award.

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 accepted invitations. Serbia, which previously said it would stay away, announced Thursday it would now attend.

Some 1,000 guests, including ambassadors, royalty and other VIPs took their seats in Oslo’s modernist City Hall for the two-hour ceremony, among them U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Ambassador Barry White. About 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong were also attending.

Chinese dissident Wan Yanhai, the only one on a list of 140 activists in China invited by Liu’s wife to attend the ceremony, said the jubilation felt by many at Liu’s honor will be tinged with sadness.

“I believe many people will cry, because everything he has done did not do any harm to the country and the people in the world. He just fulfilled his responsibility,” Wan told The Associated Press. “But he suffered a lot of pain for his speeches, journals and advocacy of rights.”

Wan managed to travel to Oslo because he fled to the United States in May after Chinese authorities increased their harassment of his AIDS advocacy group.

Before the ceremony, 2,000 schoolchildren gathered outside city hall in a display of appreciation for Liu. Some handed letters to Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland, hoping he could convey their greetings to the jailed laureate.

Jagland said 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 criticized.”

Outside Parliament, the Norwegian-Chinese Association held a pro-China rally with a handful of people proclaiming the committee had made a mistake in awarding the prize to Liu.

The Nobel Peace 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.

The ceremony in Oslo will be followed by a torchlight parade through Oslo’s streets and a banquet hosted by Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja.

In the Swedish capital of Stockholm, the other Nobel laureates were to be honored in a separate ceremony Friday. Winners in literature, physics, chemistry and economics will received their awards from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, followed by another lavish dinner.

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman noted that Friday is International Human Rights Day and said the German government will continue to press for Liu’s release.

“It is fitting that, on just this day, in Liu Xiaobo a man is being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize who has worked courageously for political freedom and human rights,” Christoph Steegmans said. Germany “regrets that Liu Xiaobo was not allowed to take part personally in the award ceremony.”

On Thursday, about 100 protesters chanting “Freedom to Liu! Freedom for China!” marched to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo but were thwarted by police from delivering a petition with more than 100,000 signatures urging Liu’s release from prison.

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