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EU Honors Chinese Dissident With Sakharov Prize

Hu Jia was sentenced to a prison term after testifying before the European Parliament.

Hu Jia was sentenced to a prison term after testifying before the European Parliament.

Jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia has been awarded the European Parliament's top human rights prize, despite warnings by Beijing that the move could damage relations with the European Union.

The Sakharov Prize For Freedom Of Thought is considered to be the EU's most prestigious human rights prize.

In announcing this year's winner, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering said the parliament was recognizing a special individual and sending out a message.

"By awarding the Sakharov Prize to Hu Jia, the European Parliament recognizes with emphasis and determination the daily struggle for freedom of all human rights defenders in China," Poettering said.

That message is sure to anger Beijing, which had warned parliament members against picking Hu.

The 35-year-old activist started out fighting for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, but he soon expanded his struggle, saying he saw China's problems as rooted in the authorities' lack of respect for human rights.

Poettering highlighted Hu's courageous journey, calling him "one of the brightest defenders of human rights in the People's Republic of China."

"The determined, dedicated activist is now being reproached for his environmental efforts, his combat against the dangers of AIDS and HIV, and his fight for the respect of human rights," Poettering said.

Before the announcement, China's ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, wrote a letter to the assembly's president warning that "if the European Parliament should award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations."

Earlier, the Chinese government described Hu as an "undeserving criminal" when he was seen as a candidate for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Hu's activism began in the late 1990s after he graduated from university, when he volunteered to work on environmental projects.

In 2001, he began helping villagers infected with HIV/AIDS in the central province of Henan.

The following year, Hu and four friends had their first run-in with state security police who detained them after they traveled to Henan villages.

The group took toys and clothes to children affected by the spread of AIDS because of the illegal collection and sale of blood. Hu said what he saw in those villages deeply affected him. "It seemed like the worst scenes of AIDS in Africa," he said.

Using a web camera, Hu participated in a European Parliamentary hearing in Brussels in November 2007 about human rights in China.

Soon afterward, he was arrested in Beijing for "subverting state authority."

In April of this year, he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison.

Hu's jailing drew condemnation from Washington, across Europe, and from human rights advocates. The Sakharov award can be expected to draw even more attention to his case.

It comes a day before a summit of 43 European and Asian states opens in Beijing on October 24.

Hu had been short-listed for the prize along with Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin and Congolese electoral official Abbot Apollinaire Malu Malu.