Liu Xiaobo

One World International Film Festival running in Prague from March 8 to 17, 2011 will use an “Empty Chair” to draw attention to imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.  The Chinese dissident had been sentenced to 11 years in jail. During the One World festival viewers will come across an empty chair with the poster ofLiu in screening halls.

In 2009, People in Need gave its Homo Homini award to the Chinese intellectual and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. The dissident had been sentenced to 11 years in jail the previous year for his part in the creation of Charter 08, a declaration inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. Thanks to the activities of People in Need, former president and One World patron Václav Havel, and 40 Czech legislators, Liu Xiaobo was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honour he received in October last year, despite protests from the Chinese regime. When the awards ceremony was held in Oslo in December, an empty chair stood in for the imprisoned laureate. Not only had the Chinese government barred Liu from attending, they also refused to allow his wife to collect the award. Since that time she has been under house arrest, cut off from the rest of the world. Similar treatment was meted out to another 150 Chinese human rights activists and people linked to Charter 08 that Liu’s wife recommend the Nobel committee invite to the ceremony. Since that time, the image of the “empty chair” has spread across social networking sites in China as a symbol of protest and support for Liu Xiaobo. Chinese censors have had to work all out in their efforts to remove all mention of the “empty chair” from websites.

One World, which is organised by People in Need, has decided to invite Liu Xiaobo and his wife to this year’s festival (running in Prague from March 8 to 17) as special guests, while Liu has also been asked to sit on the Rudolf Vrba Jury, which decides on the best film in the Right to Know competition. The Right to Know is a unique competition category presenting feature-length films that draw attention to unknown or suppressed issues concerning human rights. As is traditional, the jury that decides on the best film in the Right to Know category will consist of activists and people working for international organisations that defend human rights. The invitation has been sent to the prison where Liu is serving his sentence, and other addresses.

“We also sent the letter to the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who we regard as directly responsible for his unjustified imprisonment. Liu Xiaobo was convicted and sentenced for ‘subversion of state power’, which in reality means nothing other than that he helped create a document calling for non-violent reform and more freedom for citizens in China today, which – according to China’s constitution and international treaties it has signed – he has a full and unlimited right to do. Just as he was imprisoned on the orders of politicians at the  highest level, he can be freed in the same manner,” says the founder of the One World festival and the main initiator of Liu’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, Igor Blazevic. “Naturally we are under no illusion that the Chinese authorities would free him just because of our invitation and one letter. But on the basis of this campaign, we hope that in time there will be thousands of such letters.”

During the One World festival viewers will come across an empty chair with the poster of Liu in screening halls. They will also have the chance to send a postcard with the campaign’s logo and the slogan “Words are Not a Crime” to the Chinese government. This will send the message to the regime that, despite their best efforts, Liu Xiaobo and other voices calling for freedom have by no means been forgotten. During the year other film festivals around the world will also take part in the Empty Chair campaign, including those organised by Human Rights Watch in London, Amnesty International in the Hague, People in Need in Brussels, and the Helsinki Committee in Warsaw.

“There will be more and more postcards with the Empty Chair motif. The offices of the Chinese president and prime minister will receive them from different countries during the year, and information about it will circulate on the Chinese internet. It will become ‘mission impossible’ for Chinese censors to erase mentions of Liu Xiaobo from the consciousness of the public in China and internationally. It would be so much easier to realise the pointlessness of such efforts and to simply let him out,” adds Igor Blazevic.

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