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Dissident writer

November 16, 2010

Incarcerated in China for his subversive political activities, writer and Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo has received a special award from the German PEN committee in honor of his achievements.

Liu Xiaobo
Award-winning Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo is currently in prison for political reasonsImage: AP

In honor of the Writers in Prison Day on November 15, the German branch of international writers' association PEN highlighted the plight of persecuted writers around the world, including the nearly 900 journalists and writers who at present are detained in around 100 countries. One of these writers is Chinese Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, currently incarcerated in China as a political prisoner.

Chosen as the winner of this year's Hermann Kesten Medal - a prize awarded annually by PEN for outstanding efforts in support of persecuted authors - Liu was eagerly awaited by a group of guests at the ceremony in the German city of Darmstadt last week, but neither he nor his wife could attend, said the president of the German branch of PEN, Johano Strasser.

Behind bars

At this time, Liu is serving time at a jail 450 kilometers north of Beijing. On December 25, 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power.

Liu was one of the creators of Charter 08 - a manifesto initially signed in 2008 by over 350 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists to promote political reform and democratization in China. The document currently has around 10,000 signatures and demands rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to form political parties.

Tilman Spengler, one of the ceremony's hosts, pointed out that these demands are in full accordance with the Chinese constitution, which, at least in theory, guarantees human rights.

Liu Xiaobo
Liu Xiaobo is passionate about advancing democracy and human rights in ChinaImage: picture alliance/dpa

Theory and reality

In China, those who, like Liu, actively support human rights, are carefully scrutinized by the authorities. Since the Nobel committee announced him as the winner of the Peace Prize in October, pressure on those who don't follow the government line in China has increased. Numerous dissidents, including Liu's wife, are under house arrest, have faced interrogations or have been preemptively detained.

The Chinese government has been doing all it can to keep its citizens away from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, which is due to be held on December 10 in Oslo. Just recently, China's authorities prevented Liu's lawyer Mo Shaoping from leaving the country on allegations of endangering national security. According to Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, it is likely that neither the diploma nor the medal can be awarded, since neither Liu nor anyone associated with him will be allowed to attend.

'For the victims'

Chinese author and president of the Chinese PEN center, Tianchi Martin-Liao, accepted the Hermann Kesten prize on behalf of Liu. She was a logical choice for this role, as the two of them are friends and Liu himself is a former president of PEN in China.

In her emotional acceptance speech, Martin-Liao described Liu's reaction to the news from the Nobel Committee. According to her, the first sentence that the tearful Liu uttered was, "This prize is for the victims of the 4th of June 1989."

For Liu, the Chinese democratic movement and its brutal end at the Tiananmen Square massacre was a turning point. He repeatedly said that he, as a survivor, felt a duty to fight for justice on behalf of those who had been killed in the incident.

A mission

This sense of duty led to Liu's imprisonment. But despite the brutal measures taken against him, Liu does not see himself as a victim, but rather as a person who was aware of the risks he was facing.

"As soon as you have made your decision, you should have an optimistic stance towards the risk and the pressure, with self-confidence and calmness," said Liu in 2007.

In this regard, Liu is a worthy recipient of the Hermann Kesten Medal, which is endowed with 10,000 euros ($13,600). Hermann Kesten himself was more famous for his support of other authors than for his writings - and for passionately standing up for persecuted artists in the Nazi era.

Author: Matthias von Hein (ew)

Editor: Kate Bowen