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Honor For Jailed, Ailing Chinese Dissident

Late last year, when much of the international press was focused on Pakistan, more than 20 Chinese state security police stormed into the apartment that Hu Jia shares with his wife, Zeng Jinyan, and their 6-week-old daughter. They took Hu Jia away.

Mr. Hu was executive director of the Beijing Institute of Health Education, and became an AIDS activist when he thought the Chinese government was harsh in its treatment of AIDS patients.

When the government squelched him, he became an advocate for freedom of speech, religion, and democracy. He said that being stifled by the state made him realize that only a government installed by the votes of people can be expected to act in their interest.

Mr. Hu was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for "inciting subversion of state power." He had written a long account, widely circulated on the Internet, that detailed the the jailing of journalists, the suppression of dissidents and the mass evictions the Chinese carried out to make way for the Olympics.

His trial lasted one day.

Hu Jia is 35 years old, and has hepatitis B. His wife and daughter are under house arrest. Ms. Zeng is not permitted to so much as take their young daughter, who is now a year old, outside to play.

In fact, mother and daughter were removed from Beijing the day before the 2008 Olympics opened. Chinese officials were apparently worried that foreign reporters would try to find them.

Ms. Zeng says her husband has told her he is in solitary confinement, shackled at the hands and feet. She says prison officials have suggested that she, quote, "write about more felicitous aspects of society in my letters to my husband, so as to expedite his return to a normal life in society."

This week, the European Parliament conferred its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Hu Jia. The Chinese government called the prize "a gross interference in China's domestic affairs."

Mr. Hu had also been mentioned for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese government complained in advance that the prize should go to the "right person." The Nobel committee gave it to Finland's ex-President Martti Ahtisaari, a career diplomat and a worthy man. But you might wonder if that threat from such a rich power persuaded the Nobel committee to make a safe choice, rather than an important one.

Hu Jia is in poor health. It is not clear that he is receiving medical care in prison. In these last weeks of an American political campaign that has been variously marked by talk about bailouts, Lipstick, and Joe the Plumber, Hu Jia's life, not just his imprisonment, may remind us of the blessing it is to be able to vote and speak freely. When you cast a vote a week from Tuesday, you might hold a thought for Hu Jia and his sacrifice in your heart and mind.

Scott Simon is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small