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US lawmakers nominate four jailed Chinese dissidents for Nobel Peace Prize

Washington (AP) — Two U.S. lawmakers have nominated Jimmy Lai, a former Hong Kong publisher now standing trial on national security charges, and three other jailed Chinese dissidents for the Nobel Peace Prize. While hundreds of people are often nominated for the annual prize, this nomination is certain to draw a sharp rebuke from Beijing.

In a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee released Thursday, Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Sen. Jeffrey Merkley, the co-chair, nominated Lai, along with Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and legal activists Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong. All four are jailed for their peaceful activism.

"All these individuals embody the spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize and justly deserve the award," Smith, a New Jersey Republican, and Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, wrote. “The Peace Prize will focus world attention on all those struggling to exercise their fundamental human rights in the People's Republic of China.”

Beijing has become assertive in defending its rights record and has accused the U.S. of using the issue as a pretext to suppress China's rise. Last week, Chen Xu, the Chinese ambassador in Geneva, said during a United Nations-backed review of the country's human rights record that China “upholds respect for and protection of human rights as a task of importance in state governance.”

“We have embarked on a path of human rights development that is in keeping with the trend of the times and appropriate to China’s national conditions and so-called historic achievements in this process," Xu said.

During the review, Western governments and rights groups leveled criticisms at Beijing's rights records and urged the Chinese government to stop criminalizing peaceful expression. They called for Lai's release and the repeal of Hong Kong's national security law, under which Lai is being prosecuted for calling for foreign sanctions on mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials. If convicted, Lai could be jailed for life.

Tohti, the Uyghur scholar, is serving a life sentence for advocating for the rights of ethnic minority groups. Beijing, however, considers him to be a separatist.

Ding and Xu were sentenced last year to 12 and 14 years in jail, respectively, after being convicted of subverting state power. The two men are best known for their peaceful advocacy for civil society and equal access to education for children of migrant workers.

In 2010, Liu Xiaobo, then imprisoned, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his long, non-violent advocacy for political reforms and human rights. Beijing was infuriated and denounced the award as a political farce. It refused to release Liu, who in 2017 died of liver cancer in jail.