HUMAN RIGHTS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Sakharov Prize awarded to Chinese dissident Hu Jia
, November 8, 2008
Beijing has predictably protested at a European freedom prize awarded to a Chinese human rights activist. Peter Westmore reports.The European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the noted Chinese human rights activist, Hu Jia. Hu was one of those sentenced to imprisonment in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, keeping them out of contact with Western journalists in China for the duration of the games.
Earlier winners of the Sakharov Prize have included Nelson Mandela, while still detained in South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma), and Xanana Gusmao, now Prime Minister of East Timor.
Hu Jia is one of the generation of human rights advocates who emerged in China following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. He has been co-ordinator of the "barefoot lawyers movement" which attempts to ensure that peasants and workers have legal representation before the Chinese courts; has called for an independent inquiry into the Tiananmen Square massacre; and has campaigned against environmental pollution and on behalf of HIV sufferers.
In the late 1990s, he took up the case of villagers infected with HIV through the sale of contaminated blood in the central province of Henan. He described the situation in villages he visited as worse than what is seen in Africa, as it affected both young and old alike.
He was detained at the time by state security police who said that HIV/AIDS was "a state secret". This only changed after the attempted cover-up of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), or Bird Flu, a disease which had jumped the species gap between birds and humans.
Although he had been arrested several times before and was under house arrest, Hu Jia spoke to members of the European Parliament in November 2007 via telephone and published internet criticisms of the conduct of the Olympic Games organising committee, as a result of which he was charged with "inciting subversion of state power".
Despite international appeals for his release, including one from the European Parliament last January, he was sentenced last April to three-and-a-half years' imprisonment.
Before he was awarded the prize, the Chinese Government Foreign Ministry warned that an award to Hu Jia would constitute interference in China's internal affairs.
"We all know what kind of person Hu Jia is," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said. "He is a criminal who has been convicted of the charge of inciting subversion of government. To award the prize to such a criminal is interference in China's judicial sovereignty and totally against the initial purpose of this prize." (Radio Free Asia
, October 23, 2008).
Contacted by phone in Beijing, Hu's wife said, "I just learned of the prize. There are journalists calling me ...", before the line went dead.
Hu will be unable to accept the prize which is to be awarded in December.
President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, said: "Hu Jia is one of the true defenders of human rights in the People's Republic of China. The European Parliament is sending out a message of clear support to all those who support human rights in China."
The award was also welcomed by Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organisation.
A spokesman in Washington, Sophie Richardson, said it suggested that the European Parliament was taking a more serious interest in human rights in China.
She said: "Hu Jia represents a number of the important human rights challenges in China today - freedom of expression, civil society, trying to make space to make positive change, speaking both domestically and internationally to the press about China's problems.
"Choosing to honour him is the EU's way of saying these are serious problems that the world needs to pay attention to."- Peter Westmore