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Hu Jia, seen with his wife, Zeng Jinyan, was jailed in April after lobbying to bring attention to harassment of other activists in China. ((Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press))

The European Union has awarded its top human rights prize to Chinese dissident Hu Jia despite warnings from China that his selection would harm relations with the 27-nation bloc.

The selection of Hu, now serving a 3½-year sentence in a Chinese prison, violates universal rules of respect, China's Foreign Ministry said after Thursday's announcement.

Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters in Beijing that China was "dissatisfied" with the European Union's decision.

"It also violates universally recognized rules in the world, which is (that) countries should treat each other as equals and respect each other," Jianchao said.

The announcement of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was made as EU leaders gathered in Beijing for a summit with Asian counterparts Friday and Saturday, seeking to build a global response to the financial crisis.

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering said Hu is one of the "real defenders of human rights" in China.

"The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China," Poettering said.

Told not to pick Hu

China's ambassador to the EU had warned the bloc's elected assembly not to pick Hu.

"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 Zhe wrote in a letter to the assembly's president.

"Not recognizing China's progress in human rights and insisting on confrontation will only deepen the misunderstanding between the two sides," Song wrote.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said before the award was announced that giving Hu the prize would be "an interference in both China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty."

"We are opposed to interfering in the affairs of other countries using the excuse of human rights. What kind of person Hu Jia is, I think, is known to all. He is a criminal convicted by China's courts on charges of inciting subversion," Qin said.

Pressure seen as counterproductive

But legislators with the European Union said the pressure from China had been counterproductive in the decision to give the award to Hu.

"Beijing was lobbying heavily for Hu Jia to be passed over but the award of this richly deserved accolade to him shows that MEPs [members of the European Parliament] will not be silenced like so many Chinese dissidents have been," said Charles Tannock, foreign affairs spokesman for the British Conservatives in the EU assembly.

Hu had the backing of the conservative European People's party, the largest faction in the 785-seat European Parliament, along with the Liberals and Greens.

Awarding the prize to Hu shows the EU will continue to highlight the "authoritarian and repressive nature of the Communist government" in China, Tannock said.

Hu had also been suggested as a leading contender for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which went to Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland.

Wife delighted

Hu's wife, Zeng Jingyan, was delighted by the award news, according to Reuters.

"At last some good news," she said. "Hu Jia would be very happy if he knew."

Hu was 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 Nov. 26 last year.

A vocal critic of China's human rights record, Hu has defended AIDS patients, farmers and women forced into sterilization, and became one of China's most famous "cyber-dissidents" because he did most of his campaigning on the internet and had a popular blog where he posted corruption charges or cases of human rights violations.

He spent months under house arrest in his Beijing apartment with his wife and child before he was convicted and sentenced to 3½ years in prison. The conviction drew international criticism.

The annual EU prize is named after Soviet rights activist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. It was first awarded in 1988.

The other candidates considered this year were from Belarus and Congo. Last year, the award was given to Sudanese human rights lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman.

The formal ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the award, which includes a $64,280 US prize, is set for Dec. 17 in Strasbourg, France.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters