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Empty chair will represent imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner

By the CNN Wire Staff
Neither Liu Xiaobo nor his wife, Xia, was allowed to travel to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
Neither Liu Xiaobo nor his wife, Xia, was allowed to travel to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • The last time an empty chair was used was for the 1935 prize
  • Two countries that initially declined to attend now say they will
  • The Nobel Institute director says it's a signal to China for political reform
  • China created its own peace prize, which was awarded Thursday

Editor's note: Jonathan Mann profiles Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in a special show on CNN International and on "Prize for Peace: Nobel 2010": Friday 1700 CET, 2000 Abu Dhabi; Sat: 0000 HK

Oslo, Norway (CNN) -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will be represented Friday at the ceremony bestowing the honor by an empty chair, the second time such a symbol has been used in the event, the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee said Thursday.

Thorbjorn Jagland told reporters that the gesture is not a protest.

"It is a signal to China that it would be very important for China's future to combine economic development with political reforms and it is support for those people in China who are struggling for basic human rights," Jagland said at a news conference.

Liu, a professor of literature, is serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese prison for what the government called "inciting subversion of state power." He was not allowed to travel to Norway to accept the prize, nor was his wife, Liu Xia.

China has responded furiously since the Nobel committee announced its peace prize winner on October 8. Officials have repeatedly called Liu Xiaobo a common criminal and declared the award a Western plot against China.

Beijing also put pressure on its allies and other countries not to attend the peace prize ceremony, and it hastily announced its own honor -- the Confucius Peace Prize, which was awarded Thursday to former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan. That award was accepted by a 6-year-old girl on Lien's behalf. Lien did not know about the prize, his office said.

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Jagland said the pressure from China was not a surprise, and that it was up to Beijing to decide on its own behavior.

"There are several peace prizes in the world," he said. "If someone wants to compete with the Nobel Peace Prize, I welcome that competition, it only makes us better."

The last time an empty chair was used to represent an absent winner was when German peace activist Carl von Ossietzky won the 1935 award, according to Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute. Ossietzky was under "protective custody" in Nazi Germany and could not come to accept the award in person, nor was he represented by anyone.

Three other Nobel peace laureates were also unable to attend their ceremonies due to political reasons -- human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa, and Russian Cold War dissident Andrei Sakharov -- but spouses or other relatives were able to accept the awards on their behalf.

As for China's pressure on other countries to boycott the ceremonies, Jagland said the committee expected a "harsh reaction" from Beijing.

But "we are very glad to see that two-thirds of the nations that have embassies in Oslo will be attending the ceremony, and most of them are very big, very important countries," he added.

Lundestad said of the 19 countries that declined to come to the ceremony Friday -- including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran -- two had now reconsidered: Ukraine and the Philippines.

The ceremony will include songs by a children's choir -- a special request made by Liu through his wife, according to Lundestad. And Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann will read one of Liu's "most interesting and beautiful texts," Jagland said.

He predicted that keeping Liu, 54, in prison for the entirety of his 11-year sentence may prove to be impossible for China once the prize is awarded.

"The pressure from the outside world will be on China to release him. In today's world, it is totally impossible to close a country. We already know that a lot of Chinese know about the prize, and this is creating a huge pressure on China," Jagland said. "I believe this is one of the most influential Nobel Peace Prizes that have been awarded through the years."

"The demand now from the world community must be that these economic reforms (by China) are being followed up by political reforms," he added.

Several foreign news websites -- including CNN and BBC -- were blocked in mainland China Thursday. Broadcasts of CNN International are being blacked out intermittently, when news of the peace prize is reported, according to CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime FlorCruz.

"We are required to beam our signal through a Chinese satellite station before it is broadcast to mainland China. That creates a 12-second delay. Authorities use that time to black out specific parts of the signal," he explained.

FlorCruz said most Chinese are likely not aware that Liu has been awarded the prestigious award.

"Whatever they may have read about him has been through official talking points and state commentary," he said.

Amnesty International said it had received report that Chinese diplomats in Norway have been pressuring Chinese residents into joining anti-Nobel demonstrations when the award ceremony is held Friday. The human rights group did not say how it learned of this, only offering that it has been "informed by reliable sources."

Answering critics who claim that the award is based on the Western standards of human rights, Jagland said the criteria are from the universal rights and values described in the United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights.

"All the dissidents in China, they are advocating over common universal rights," he said. "Yes, there are different parts to a democracy, but one thing is absolutely clear: You cannot have democracy without freedom of expression, and that is clearly stated in the declaration of human rights."

CNN's Alanne Orjoux contributed to this report.

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