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China warns EU over rights prize nominee

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STRASBOURG, France (AP) — China has warned the European Union that its relations with the 27-nation bloc will be seriously damaged if jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia wins the EU's top human rights prize on Thursday.

Hu is one of three nominees for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize. The winner will be chosen by EU lawmakers.

In a letter to the president of EU assembly, China's ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, expressed "much regret" that Hu had made the shortlist.

"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," Song wrote.

The letter, dated Oct. 16, was obtained on Wednesday by The Associated Press.

One prominent member of the European Parliament said the Chinese threat was counterproductive.

"Heavy-handed Chinese state lobbying to influence the outcome of the Sakharov prize winner only plays into the hands of critics and reinforces the case for Hu Jia," said Graham Watson, the leader of the EU Liberal group.

Song's warning comes ahead of an EU-Asia summit in Beijing on Friday and Saturday, during which French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the EU president, wants to persuade China and other Asia nations to join in an overhaul of the world financial system.

Hu is a brash dissident who chronicled the arrests and harassment of other activists before he was sentenced in April to 3½ years in jail in China.

He started out fighting for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, but his scope expanded after the government gave little ground and he began to see China's problems as rooted in authorities' lack of respect for human rights.

Joining Hu on the shortlist are Belarus opposition leader Alexander Kozulin and Abbe Apollinaire Malu-Malu, who guided Congo through its first elections in 50 years in 2006 as chief of the African nation's electoral commission.

Hu had also been considered a front-runner for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which drew Chinese criticism, too. That prize went to former Finland President Martti Ahtisaari.

In the letter to European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, Song said EU-China relations are just recovering from the angry backlash in China triggered by European human rights protests ahead of this year's Beijing Olympics.

"Not recognizing China's progress in human rights and insisting on confrontation will only deepen the misunderstanding between the two sides," Song cautioned. The letter urged Poettering to use his influence to ensure Hu did not win.

A committee of EU lawmakers drew up the shortlist for the $64,000 award, which is named in honor of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov who died in 1989.

The prize is awarded annually to a person or group for achievements in human rights or promotion of democracy. Previous winners include former South African President Nelson Mandela, East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao and Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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