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For several hours today, worldwide attention focused on an empty chair on a stage in Oslo, Norway. That chair was for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. China did not allow him to attend today's award ceremony. Instead, he sits in a Chinese jail, serving an 11-year sentence.
NPR's Philip Reeves sent this story from Oslo.
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PHILIP REEVES: The ceremony opened with a fanfare, yet the chief guest was missing. As the great and the good gathered in Oslo's city hall, the Nobel laureate was in jail thousands of miles away.
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Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
REEVES: That meant Liu Xiaobo was unable to hear the opening recital or the tributes poured upon him. Near his empty chair was a giant portrait of him, smiling silently down on the gathering, yet his words were heard, thanks to the eminent Norwegian actress Liv Ullman.
Ms. LIV ULLMAN (Actress): The text I am going to read - I have no enemies. My final statement was Liu Xiaobo's final declaration on December 23rd, 2009, at the trial against him. Two days later, he was sentenced to 11 years of prison.
REEVES: That sentence was imposed for inciting people to overthrow the Chinese state. Liu, a distinguished literary critic, was a driving force behind Charter 08, a document that called for democratic reforms in human rights. The Chinese maintain he's a criminal who's become a player in a plot to discredit their country and arrogantly to force Western values upon it. Liu's haunting text told a different story.
Ms. ULLMANN: I hope that I will be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisitions, and that from now on, no one will be incriminated because of speech.
REEVES: Beijing called today's ceremony a political farce. It says the award infringes on China's judicial sovereignty. Chinese officials tried hard to strong-arm other countries into boycotting it. Some 18 nations didn't show, among them Russia. Their representatives were not there to hear Ullman's rendering of Liu's striking vision of the future.
Ms. ULLMANN: I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop. And I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China for there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom.
REEVES: Among today's audience were diplomats, politicians, celebrities, royals and about a hundred supporters of Liu from the Chinese diaspora.
Thorbjorn Jagland, chair of the Nobel Committee, told them that Liu dedicated his prize to those killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Jagland stressed the prize was not meant as an outright attack on China. He paid tribute to China's extraordinary rise as an economic power but added a warning.
Mr. THORBJORN JAGLAND (Chairman, Nobel Peace Prize Committee): China, with its 1.3 billion people, is carrying mankind's weight on its shoulders. If the country proves capable of developing a social market economy with full civil rights, this will have a huge favorable impact on the world. If not, there is a danger of social and economic crises arising in the country, with negative consequences for us all.
REEVES: The longest round of applause came when Jagland delivered this blunt message.
Mr. JAGLAND: Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong. He must be released.
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REEVES: For the first time in three quarters of a century, the Nobel Peace Prize wasn't actually handed to anyone today. Liu's wife couldn't be there. She's under house arrest in China. So the gold medal was simply placed on Liu's empty chair.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Oslo.
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