BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament, in a move that immediately drew a tart rebuke from Beijing, awarded its top human rights prize Thursday to a Chinese dissident who was jailed for subversion after testifying to the assembly last year.
Announcing the award of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering called Hu Jia "one of the real defenders of human rights in the People's Republic of China."
"By awarding the Sakharov Prize to Hu Jia, the European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who defend human rights in China," Poettering told the EU assembly.
A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, Liu Jianchao, expressed strong dissatisfaction that such an award had gone to a "jailed criminal" even though China had made numerous representations on the issue.
Liu called the award a meddling in China's domestic affairs and a violation of international norms, but he also said it would not overshadow an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of 43 nations in Beijing that starts Friday.
"Relative to so many pressing international affairs, it's too trivial to dwell on," Liu said at a briefing on the two-day ASEM summit.
Starting with advocacy for rural AIDS sufferers, Hu emerged as one of China's most vocal advocates of democratic rights, religious freedom and of self-determination for Tibet, which was shaken by protests and a security crackdown earlier this year.
He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison in China in April. Hu, 35, had already spent many months under house arrest with his wife and child.
He was arrested and charged with "inciting subversion of state power" following his testimony on human rights in China via conference call to the European Parliament's Human Rights Subcommittee on November 26 last year.
Hu's jailing drew condemnation from Washington, across Europe and from human rights advocates.
His wife, Zeng Jingyan, was delighted by the news of the award when told of it by Reuters in Beijing. "At last some good news," she said. "Hu Jia would be very happy if he knew."
She visited her husband Wednesday evening. He had been transferred on October 10 to a "model jail" in Beijing from a prison in the port city of Tianjin.
Poettering said Hu was sick with cirrhosis of the liver and added: "As far as we know he is not being allowed proper medical care."
A source who met Hu in September said his health was poor and he had been placed in solitary confinement in chains at least once.
As a devout Buddhist, he was sticking to a strict vegetarian diet, which caused him nutritional problems in prison, the source said.
Other prisoners were not allowed to lend Hu reading material. His letters to his family were read by prison officials who demanded that he rewrote them if they did not like the contents, the source added.
The annual EU prize is named after Soviet rights activist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and was first awarded in 1988.
It was given last year to Sudanese human rights lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman. Previous recipients include Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The formal award ceremony for the prize, which includes a check for 50,000 euros ($64,280), will take place on December 17 in Strasbourg, France.
Additional reporting by Huw Jones and Emma Graham-Harrison and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alex Richardson