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Jailed Chinese Dissident Wins EU's Top Human Rights Prize

Chinese dissident Hu Jia has been awarded the EU's most prestigious human rights prize, despite warning from Beijing that his selection would "seriously damage" relations.

Chinese AIDS activist Hu Jia

Hu was arrested in December and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison

Hu Jia was selected for the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament, the executive arm of the European Union, on Thursday, Oct. 23, for defending the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.

"Awarding the Sakharov to Hu Jia is a reflection of the very spirit of this prize, which supports free thought and honors human rights defenders fighting repression," Greens leaders Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Monica Frassoni said in a statement.

Hu is currently serving a three-and-a-half-year jail term on charges of subversion. Beijing on Thursday insisted that Hu is a criminal.

"To issue an award to such a criminal amounts to interference in China's judicial sovereignty and is totally against the purpose of this prize," said government spokesman Qin Gang.

The Sakharov award announcement comes just one day ahead of an Asia-Europe summit, but Qin declined to say whether Hu's recognition would have a negative impact on the talks.

Uncovering a 'state secret'

Hu's activism began in the late 1990s when the economics graduate volunteered to work on environmental projects.

In 2001, he began helping villagers infected with HIV/AIDS through blood-selling schemes in the central province of Henan. The following year, Hu and four friends had their first run-in with state security police who intercepted them and seized film after they traveled to Henan villages.

The group took Christmas toys and clothes to children in poor villages that were decimated due to AIDS spread by the illegal collection and sale of blood.

Construction worker in China next to an AIDS Day poster

Hu said the SARS epidemic helped draw awareness to the AIDS problem in China

"It seemed like the worst scenes of AIDS in Africa, with old and young people infected," Hu told DPA news agency. "State security police threatened us and said that AIDS was a state secret," he said.

Hu said he believes that China was "lucky" to be shaken out of its complacency on AIDS by the scandal over a cover-up of hundreds of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Beijing.

"After SARS in 2003, nobody dared to say that AIDS was a state secret any more," Hu said. "It gave us an opportunity to be more open."

Activism despite house arrest

His continued advocacy for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in China brought him international attention and several awards.

But after two years of relatively open activism, the climate began to change with the arrest and harassment of AIDS activists in 2005, he said.

In 2006 and 2007 he was forced to spend most of his time confined inside his suburban apartment on the outskirts of Beijing. Before his formal arrest in late December, Hu had spent most of the previous two years under virtual house arrest or other forms of detention.

He used his enforced isolation to act as a bridge between foreign media and the growing number of rights activists across the country, collecting and disseminating information on rights cases and other issues in China via the Internet and telephone.

In November, he and his wife Zeng Jinyan managed to testify in a telephone call to the European Parliamentary hearing on the rights situation in China.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was the first recipient of the EU's Sakharov Prize in 1988

Despite appeals from the European Union, the United States and rights groups for his release, a Beijing court in April sentenced Hu to three and a half years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" after a one-day trial.

The Sakharov Prize, in its 20th year, is named for the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Past winners of the Sakharov Prize include Nelson Mandela, Ibrahim Rugova, the United Nations and Reporters Without Borders.

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