Five Empty Chairs

In October, Amnesty applauded the announcement that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to three world-changing women—Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. In addition to celebrating the work of these women, we’re also very happy that they’re all free to attend the award ceremony tomorrow.

While this year’s winners travel to Oslo to accept their awards, this freedom of movement is not the reality for many activists around the world, including past prize recipients.  Today, we remember five past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize who have been unable to attend the award ceremony due to persecution:

2010: Liu Xiaobo
liu xiaoboIn October 2010 the Nobel Committee awarded Liu the Nobel Peace Prize ”for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Following the announcement, celebrations in China were either stopped or curtailed and prominent intellectuals and other dissidents were detained, harassed or put under surveillance.

Nobel rules require the winner or his or her immediate family to personally accept the prize. Liu’s and his family’s enforced absence meant that for the first time since 1938, the peace prize was not awarded at the ceremony. His wife, Liu Xia, could have collected the award for him, but she was under house arrest in Beijing. Dozens of others who wanted to attend the ceremony were also detained or forbidden from leaving China.

Because neither Liu Xiaobo nor anyone else was able to accept the prize in person, his chair was left empty, a symbol of hopes and aspirations of millions of Chinese who continue to be silenced by the crushing weight of the Chinese government. Take action for Liu Xiaobo, who remains in prison even now, and write letters for him and other individuals at risk in Write for Rights.

1991: Aung San Suu Kyi
In the 1990 general election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy opposition party in Myanmar (Burma) won 59% of the national votes and 81% of the seats in Parliament. This didn’t please the ruling military junta, and she remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until her most recent release in November 2010. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was unable to attend the ceremony. Amnesty International worked on Aung San Suu Kyi’s case for years, including as a Write for Rights case in 2008.

1983: Lech Walesa
Before he served as President of Poland from 1990-95, Lech Walesa was a human rights activist and trade union organizer, co-founding Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union. On October 8, 1982, Solidarity was outlawed, and in 1983 Walesa applied to return to the Gdańsk Shipyard as a simple electrician. That was the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he was unable to accept it himself out of fear that Poland’s government would not let him back into the country, so his wife accepted it on his behalf.

1975: Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist. First nominated for the Nobel Peace in 1973, he was awarded it in 1975, although he was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to collect it. His wife read his speech at the ceremony. This was not the end of Sakharov’s activism, nor the end of his troubles. Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action for him in 1983, when he the conditions of his imprisonment became so bad that his health was threatened.

1935: Carl von Ossietzky
German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was awarded the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize, and was the first ever regime critic to be awarded the prize. He was convicted of high treason and espionage in 1931 after publishing details of Germany’s alleged violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Ossietzky was unable to make the trip to Oslo when his prize ceremony was held in 1936, and no one was able to attend on his behalf, so his chair remained empty.

As the winner’s of this year’s award take the stage tomorrow, let’s remember those imprisoned or otherwise restricted because of their beliefs or peaceful activities!

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