BEIJING -- Two exchange students accepted a Chinese peace prize Friday on behalf of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was honored for enhancing Russia's status and crushing anti-government forces in Chechnya, the prize organizers said.
The Confucius Peace Prize was hastily launched last year as an alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize which had just honored imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The 2011 prize ceremony took place a day before this year's Nobel prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, and as Nobel made new calls for China to release Liu from prison.
The Confucius Peace Prize organization announced last month that Putin had been chosen to receive this year's award, saying that during his 2000-2008 tenure as president Putin "brought remarkable enhancement to the military might and political status of Russia." It also cited Putin's crushing of anti-government forces in Chechnya.
The justification seems slightly dubious given authoritarian trends in Putin's policies and his reputation for jailing political rivals and cracking down on government critics. Ongoing protests in Moscow over a parliamentary election believed marred by fraud have raised the biggest ever challenge to Putin, who is seeking to return to the presidency next year.
Qiao Damo, head of the China International Peace Research Center, said he hopes the Russian exchange students, who were apparently selected to stand in for Putin, will be able to give the prize to Putin, either in Beijing when he next visits or in Moscow.
The pair are studying at Beijing Language and Culture University, Qiao said in a telephone interview. He gave their names as Katya and Maria but was unsure of their surnames. Two students from Belarus were also present, he said.
The ceremony for the inaugural prize last year had its own surreal tint. Honoree former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan was unaware of the proceedings and did not attend, so the prize was given to a young girl whom the organizers refused to identify.
The Confucius Prize sponsors are professors and academics who say they are independent of China's government.
It was launched to promote traditional Chinese and Asian ideas of peace, Qiao said. He criticized the Nobel Committee's criteria for choosing peace prize recipients over the past two years, saying it had "drifted further and further away from the concept of peace."
Liu's win enraged the government and Chinese nationalists, who accused the Nobel committee of interfering in China's legal system as part of a plot to disgrace the nation. Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence for co-authoring an appeal for political reform.
Qiao said he disapproved of Liu as a peace prize recipient because Liu had "humiliated his motherland" with his published views, and cited comments Liu made about how the Chinese territory of Hong Kong had benefited from being an English colony.
"We feel it's wrong to seize colonies by force and aggression," Qiao said.
Meanwhile, a group of five Nobel Peace Prize winners and human rights activists called for Liu's immediate and unconditional release from jail. The International Committee of Support to Liu Xiaobo said in an email that Liu is the only Nobel laureate currently in prison, and accused the international community of forgetting his plight.
"Unfortunately, the sentencing to 11 years in prison seems to be forgotten slowly but steadily outside China," said the group.
The campaign for Liu's release includes Nobel winners Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams and Desmond Tutu. Also involved are former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and activists from Reporters Without Borders and other rights groups.
The announcement of Liu's Nobel prize last year cheered China's fractured, persecuted dissident community and brought calls from the U.S., Germany and others for his release. It also infuriated the Chinese government, and authorities harassed and detained dozens of Liu's supporters in the weeks that followed.
It resulted in harsh treatment of Liu's wife, Liu Xia, who has largely been held incommunicado, effectively under house arrest, watched by police, without phone or Internet access and prohibited from seeing all but a few family members.