BEIJING (AP) — The sponsors of a would-be Chinese alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize held their second award ceremony on Friday, handing a gold Confucius statue and a certificate meant for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to a pair of exchange students, an organizer said.
The Confucius Prize ceremony comes a day before the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize is to be awarded in Oslo, Norway, and as a group of Nobel laureates launched a new campaign calling for China to release last year's Nobel laureate, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, from prison.
A group called the China International Peace Research Center hastily launched the Confucius Peace Prize last year in an attempt to counter the news of the Peace Prize going to Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for co-authoring an appeal for political reform.
Liu's win enraged the government and Chinese nationalists, who accused the Nobel committee of interfering in China's legal system as part of a plot to bring the nation down in disgrace.
The Confucius Peace Prize organization announced last month that Putin had been chosen to receive this year's award, saying that during his 2000-2008 tenure as president Putin "brought remarkable enhancement to the military might and political status of Russia." It also cited Putin's crushing of anti-government forces in Chechnya.
The award's sponsors are professors and academics who say they are independent of the government.
Qiao Damo, head of the China International Peace Research Center, said in a telephone interview that the Beijing Language and Culture University students who accepted the prize were Russians named Katya and Maria but he was unsure of their surnames. Two other students from Belarus were also present, he said.
Qiao said he hopes the Russian exchange students, who were apparently selected to stand in for Putin, will be able to find a way to give the prize to Putin, either in Beijing when he next visits or in Moscow.
He said the Confucius Prize was launched to promote traditional Chinese and Asian ideas of peace. He criticized the Nobel Committee's criteria for choosing peace prize recipients over the past two years, saying it had "drifted further and further away from the concept of peace."
He said he disapproved of Liu as a peace prize recipient because Liu had "humiliated his motherland" with his published views, and cited comments Liu made about how the Chinese territory of Hong Kong had benefited from being an English colony.
"We feel it's wrong to seize colonies by force and aggression," Qiao said.
Meanwhile, a group of five Nobel Peace Prize winners and human rights activists called for Liu's immediate and unconditional release from jail. The International Committee of Support to Liu Xiaobo said in an emailed statement that Liu is the only Nobel laureate currently in prison, and accused the international community of forgetting his plight.
"Unfortunately, the sentencing to 11 years in prison seems to be forgotten slowly but steadily outside China," said the group.
The campaign for Liu's release includes Nobel winners Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams and Desmond Tutu. Also involved are former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and activists from Reporters Without Borders and other rights groups.
The announcement of Liu's Nobel prize last year cheered China's fractured, persecuted dissident community and brought calls from the U.S., Germany and others for his release. It also infuriated the Chinese government, and authorities harassed and detained dozens of Liu's supporters in the weeks that followed.
It resulted in harsh treatment of Liu's wife, Liu Xia, who has largely been held incommunicado, effectively under house arrest, watched by police, without phone or Internet access and prohibited from seeing all but a few family members.