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Nobel predictions center on rights activists

Rights activists from China and Russia are considered front-runners to win the Nobel Peace Prize next week, while bettors are eyeing an Italian, a Syrian and an Israeli for the literature award.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Human rights activists from China and Russia are considered front-runners to win the Nobel Peace Prize next week, while bettors are putting their money on an Italian, a Syrian or an Israeli for the literature award.

The annual guessing game is in full swing as the prize committees prepare for their final meetings to single out achievements in science, economics, peace and literature for the $1.3 million awards.

While the selections for medicine, physics, chemistry and economics are usually met by approval from the scientific community, the peace and literature committees nearly always face accusations of political bias.

The top member of the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize, sparked a furor in U.S. literary circles this week by saying the United States is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.

But Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, rejected the notion that politics has anything to do with Nobel decisions.

"One doesn't read literature with the same part of the brain as one votes for a political party," he told The Associated Press.

Anniversary of U.N. declaration
Peace Prize speculation is focusing on human rights, partly because 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Coincidentally, the declaration was signed on Dec. 10, the date of the annual Nobel Prize ceremonies and the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

Peace researcher Stein Toennesson, whose picks tend to shape world speculation, was leaning toward Chinese dissidents Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia, both arrested and jailed through the Beijing Olympics to keep them out of the public eye.

Toennesson, director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, said the prize committee might pick a Chinese activist "in view of the fact that the Olympic Games did not bring the improvement many had hoped for, but instead led to a number of strict security measures."

He also suggested Russian lawyer and activist Lidia Yusupova as a way of drawing attention to human rights abuses in Russia, and to remember Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in 2006.

Another possible pick is Vietnamese Thich Quang, a Buddhist monk and dissident who has spent more than 25 years in detention for his peaceful protests against Vietnam's communist regime.

Toennesson also mentioned Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, a Pakistani Supreme Court chief justice who was suspended after defying then-President Pervez Musharraf; as well as the Cluster Munitions Coalition for its role in drafting a treaty banning cluster bombs, or an organization such as Human Rights Watch.

"We always watch Stein Toennesson's predictions with interest," said Geir Lundestad, the prize committee's nonvoting secretary. Beyond that, he would only say there were 197 nominations and that the winner would be announced Oct. 10.

Last year, the Peace Prize was shared by former Vice President Al Gore and the U.N. panel on climate change for raising awareness about global warming.

Literature announced next Thursday
The Swedish Academy has announced it will present the literature prize winner next Thursday.

Engdahl's comments to the AP drew anger in the U.S., where the head of the National Book Foundation offered to send Engdahl a reading list of American literature.

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," Engdahl said in the interview Tuesday.

He was speaking in general terms about American literature — the academy insists that nationality doesn't matter when it makes its pick.

The 16-member jury often selects obscure writers and rarely picks best-selling authors. It regularly faces accusations of snobbery, political bias and even poor taste.

Betting firm Ladbrokes gave the lowest odds Friday for Italian writer Claudio Magris, Syrian poet Adonis and Israeli author Amos Oz. They were followed by Americans Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, all recurring names in Nobel speculation.

The announcements kick off Monday with the medicine prize, which typically honors breakthroughs that have furthered the understanding of killer diseases or helped develop treatments to cure them. Physics, chemistry, literature and peace will follow later in the week, while the economics award will be announced Oct. 13.