Despite pressure from Beijing, European Parliamentarians have awarded imprisoned Chinese dissident Hu Jia the most important human rights award in the European Union, the Sakharov Prize. Hu Jia, who has spoken out in support of Tibet, was given the prize “on behalf of all silenced voices in China and Tibet”, according to European Parliamentarians. The decision has angered China, which hosts the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) tomorrow in Beijing.

Vincent Metten, EU Policy Director of the International Campaign for Tibet in Brussels said: “We commend European Parliamentarians for awarding the Sakharov Prize to Hu Jia, who has spoken out courageously against repression in Tibet and in support of the Tibetan people as well as working tirelessly to chronicle human rights abuses in China. On the eve of the Asia-Europe summit, European leaders are sending a strong message to China that repression of peaceful dissent is unacceptable and human rights must be respected.”

Hans-Gert Poettering, President of the European Parliament. said: “Hu Jia is one of the real defenders of human rights in the People’s Republic of China.” Beijing’s ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, warned last week that China’s relations with the 27-nation bloc would be seriously harmed if Hu Jia won the Sakharov Prize. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Liu Jianchao, expressed strong dissatisfaction today that the award had gone to a “jailed criminal”, but added that the issue was “too trivial” to mar the proceedings of ASEM.

Hu Jia was sentenced to three and a half years in jail this spring on subversion charges during a crackdown on human rights activists ahead of the Olympics. He had begun his activism in the late 1990s, campaigning for recognition and treatment for HIV/AIDS sufferers, and was also involved in environmental campaigns to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope (chiru). He then took up a much broader range of human rights issues and publicized human rights abuses online and through his writing. Hu Jia is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, and his daughter was given a Tibetan name by the Dalai Lama at Hu’s request after his wife, Zeng Jinyan, met the Dalai Lama in India where they discussed human rights in China and Buddhism.

European Parliamentarians said in a statement that Hu Jia “represents all the other Chinese citizens who are repressed: lawyers, journalists, petitioners, human rights activists, writers and cyber-dissidents”. Several Tibetan political prisoners – Dolma Kyab, Jigme Gyatso, Jigme Tenzin Nyima, Runggye Adak, Tashi Gyatso, and Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche – are named on the list of prisoners included in Hu Jia’s candidature for the Sakharov Prize. A committee of EU lawmakers drew up the shortlist for the Euro 50,000 (US$64,000) award, which is named in honor of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov who died in 1989.

In a letter written on September 10, 2007 while he was under house arrest, Hu Jia and civil rights lawyer Teng Biao referred to the shooting of 17-year old Tibetan nun Kelsang Namtso on the Nangpa Pass by Chinese border guards in 2006, and the tightening of control over Tibetan Buddhism. “One year later, China tightened its control over the Tibetan Buddhism. A September 1, 2007 regulation requires all reincarnated lamas to be approved by Chinese authorities, a requirement that flagrantly interferes with the tradition of reincarnation of living Buddhas as practiced in Tibet for thousands of years. In addition, Chinese authorities still ban the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and a world-renowned pacifist, from returning to Tibet.” (The full text of the letter in English is published by Human Rights Watch).

Hu Jia gained support in coping with his own lack of freedom, and sometimes, despair, from his Buddhist faith and the example of the Dalai Lama. He wrote in one article: “For 20 days, I’ve not been able to take a single step outside my door. Sullen and seething with anger, on occasion I have the urge to perish as one with the state machinery. But I am a Buddhist, and I must let go. My soul is free, and I think of the future. To not be free is the greatest humiliation; to not be free is to have one’s dignity trampled. With hundreds of days such as these, I cannot help but recall that stately man and the people who he led and how they have passed a half century and more of displacement. What can I do for you?

“Exile or imprisonment have always been the price of taking freedom away. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his people have paid with several decades of exile, and I want to use peaceful means to level the deep, deep gully created by totalitarianism. Your Holiness, venerated Dalai Lama, if a young Han pays with the months and years of his life and even his whole life, would that it could be exchanged for the freedom for Your Holiness and the exiled Tibetans to return home, or that could I be the first torch to light your way home through mainland China, I would willingly give everything.” (‘The Dalai Lama’s return’ by Hu Jia, August 9, 2006).

Beijing had earlier expressed concern about Hu Jia’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize this month, with the Foreign Ministry saying that it hoped the committee would choose “the right person”. The comments, made prior to the award, were taken as a warning that a Nobel win for either Hu Jia or dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng, both contenders for the Prize, would severely strain relations between China and the West. Beijing still expresses disquiet that the Dalai Lama won the Peace Prize in 1989. The 2008 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Finnish peace negotiator Martti Ahtisaari earlier this month.