China's government reacted angrily Thursday to the European Parliament's decision to give its top human-rights prize to jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia, calling him a criminal and the award interference.
The harsh reaction to Hu's winning the Sakharov Prize contrasted with the friendly atmosphere Beijing was trying to project as it welcomed leaders from the European Union and Asia for a summit to tackle the global economic crisis.
The European Parliament bucked a Chinese pressure campaign against giving the award to Hu, an outspoken advocate on human rights, the environment and social fairness. Hu is in a Beijing jail serving a 3 1/2-year sentence for sedition. The charge stems from police accusations that he had planned to work with foreigners to disturb the Olympic Games in August.
"We express strong dissatisfaction to the decision by the European Parliament to issue such an award to the jailed criminal in China, in disregard of China's repeated representations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters. "It also violates universally recognized rules in the world, which is countries should treat each others as equals and respect each other."
Hours earlier, before the award was announced, Liu's deputy, Qin Gang, told reporters: "To issue an award to such a criminal is interference in China's judicial sovereignty and totally against the initial purpose of this prize."
The award cheered Hu's supporters and the rights community.
"I feel very happy to hear the news," Hu's wife Zeng Jinyan, also an activist, said in a brief telephone interview before the phone disconnected — usually a sign that authorities were monitoring her calls.
Lawyer: 'Love, not hate'
Initially an advocate for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, Hu expanded his efforts after the government gave little ground and he began to see the country's problems as rooted in authorities' lack of respect for human rights.
From his apartment where he was often under house arrest, Hu used the Internet and telephone to chronicle the harassment and arrests of other dissidents. Before he was detained and jailed last December, he also published a series of articles accusing authorities of neglecting and playing down human rights issues ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
"Hu Jia's criticisms are based on love, not hate," said his lawyer, Li Jingsong. "The Chinese government should support and encourage people like Hu Jia because you can never silence voices of opposition."
Hu is little known inside China because state media has been largely banned from reporting about him. He was rumored to have been one of the front-runners for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, won by former Finland President Martti Ahtisaari.
Named for a Soviet dissident, the Sakharov Prize is considered the EU's top rights award and comes with a $64,000 honorarium. Previous winners include former South African President Nelson Mandela, East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao and Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya.
Following the parliament's announcement, human-rights groups called for Hu's release from prison.
"The Chinese government should see Hu Jia as the European Parliament clearly does: not as an enemy or embarrassment, but rather as someone whose courageous advocacy embodies the best of China," Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Wife: Poor conditions
Hu's wife has said he has in been in poor health and in the past was forced by his jailers to rake leaves for seven hours a day.
On her blog she wrote Wednesday that she visited Hu for 30 minutes at the prison to which he was transferred on Oct. 10. "Hu Jia said the condition of this prison is better than (the other) prison, but he is still without hot water for bathing," Zeng wrote. "He hasn't started prison labor yet. For now, he studies every day."
She said that 19 letters Hu Jia has written to his family since he was imprisoned have been confiscated.
Li, his lawyer, said that while he was pleased by the award, he doubted it would lead to Hu's early release.
"If they release him right now, people will say the government succumbed to pressure by the international society," he said.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the prize, the EU plans two days of special events culminating in the award ceremony on Dec. 17 in Strasbourg, France.