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Los Angeles Times
Jailed Chinese activist wins EU human rights award
Mark Magnier,
October 23, 2008
Hu Jia, shown during an a 2007 interview at his home in Beijing, won the European Union's prestigious Sakharov Prize.

Hu Jia, 35, established an AIDS nonprofit and campaigned on behalf of political prisoners. His winning of the award represents a challenge to China's human rights record.

Reporting from Beijing -- In a move designed to shine a spotlight on Beijing's poor human rights record, the European Union today awarded a prestigious human rights award to an outspoken Chinese activist currently languishing in a Chinese jail.

The awarding of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to 35-year-old Hu Jia represents a challenge to the Communist regime's often heavy-handed approach to social control. It also comes shortly after the Beijing Olympics, when China's pledge to improve its human rights record fell short in some people's eyes.

In a bit of lobbying that ultimately failed and may even have backfired, Beijing issued a warning to the European body Wednesday against naming Hu. "If the European Parliament should award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations," China's ambassador to the European Union, Song Zhe, said in a letter.

Hu was sentenced in April for "incitement to subvert state power," a broadly worded charge the regime often uses against critics and dissidents. The activist has angered Beijing by campaigning for political prisoners, spotlighting torture and aiding victims of injustice, including those hurt by industrial pollution, repressive medical policies and violation of civil rights.

Hu was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, a move some analysts saw as part of a larger bid to intimidate other social activists in advance of the August Olympics.

"This prize is very important, not just for him but for all in China's emerging civil society," said Sara Davis, executive director of New York-based Asia Catalyst, a human rights group. "Hu Jia is someone the Chinese should be proud of, not ashamed of. He's made enormous contributions."

When Hu Jia was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year, an honor that ultimately went to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, Beijing also warned the Nobel committee not to make a "mistake."

Beijing has denied that outside pressure will alter its human rights stance, arguing that stability and elevating hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty is its definition of human rights. "No matter what happens, China will never give up its current policies," said Liu Wenzong, a standing director of the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

But activists said China is much more concerned about its international reputation than it says, and the global spotlight will increase pressure for reform. "On the surface, China will probably be aggravated with this choice, and [Chinese] pundits will say this is not the way to change China," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "But the fact is, China is hugely concerned with its global image. This might actually prompt the government to seriously engage and mitigate its record."

Zeng Jinyan, Hu's wife, fellow human rights activist and tireless fighter on his behalf, recently challenged the government over her husband's declining health. He has hepatitis-related liver cirrhosis linked to chronic hepatitis B infection.

Hu started to gain prominence in 2000 when he established "Loving Source," an AIDS nonprofit. He has since resigned for the organization's benefit, citing the government's displeasure with his activities.

He has campaigned for the release of political prisoners and was detained in 2005 for participating in an anti-Japanese rally. While under house arrest, he continued to blog and made a documentary of their house-bound activities, further angering the government. He also took part in a human rights conference via webcam.

In February 2006 he was detained for over a month, then placed under house arrest for nearly a year. Last December, he was detained again after working with peasants fighting the seizure of their land.

Magnier is a Times staff writer.