Vaclav Havel, playwright, former dissident, and first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), expressed strong solidarity and sympathy with jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and his family in a recent interview with Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. On December 25, 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison on conviction of “inciting subversion of state power,” for six of his essays and for co-authoring Charter 08, an online petition released in early December 2008 calling for human rights and democracy and an end to one-party rule in China.

On January 19, 2010, in Prague, Havel said: “It’s incumbent upon us, who have lived through those times and those experiences … to be among the first ones to show solidarity with those who are persecuted for the same reasons.” Havel emphasized that solidarity can send a clear message to the Chinese government that “it can’t just do whatever it wishes.”

Havel said that despite the vast differences between Czechoslovakia in 1977 (a small country in economic decline) and China today (a superpower on a steep rise), there is in fact a striking similarity between them. “The regime wishes for the dictatorship of one party. I think this is where Charter 08 and Charter 77 are similar: they have similar targets and similar messages to deliver to the [respective] regimes,” Havel said.

Charter 08 drew its inspiration from Charter 77, the 1977 manifesto co-authored by Havel that called on the Czech government to respect the country's constitution, its international obligations, and basic civil and human rights. Havel was imprisoned for his involvement in Charter 77. In 1989, Havel became the last president of Czechoslovakia, a position he held until 1992. The following year, Havel was elected the first president of the newly created Czech Republic.

Reflecting on his long struggle to achieve human rights and democracy for his own country, Havel said, “My basic experience shows me that a person who is striving for something, who is going into this conflict has to be ready to say what he or she thinks and shouldn’t count on immediate success. [But] he has to do it because he knows that it’s good, because it’s good for his conscience, because it has meaning.”

Havel sends this message to Liu and his family: “I would like to tell them that I’m not the only one thinking about them and sympathizing with them. I would like to wish them to be patient and to enjoy solidarity. … I would very much like to tell them that they shouldn’t take things too close to their hearts. Because this can help them in overcoming the very upsetting and difficult situations.”

Liu’s sentence has prompted an international outcry, including a statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay that the verdict cast “an ominous shadow” over China’s commitments to protect human rights, and a European Parliament resolution condemning what it called “judicial harassment.” In early January, Havel, along with two former Czech dissidents, delivered to the Chinese embassy in Prague an open letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao protesting Liu’s sentence. In addition, Havel, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and others, jointly endorsed Liu for the Nobel Peace Prize. Inside China, prominent retired Communist cadres, including Hu Jiwei, former Editor-in-Chief of People’s Daily, the CPC mouthpiece, have denounced the sentence.

Human Rights in China will publish the full interview with Vaclav Havel in the 2010-1 issue of China Rights Forum, an issue on freedom of expression, including a comprehensive dossier on Liu Xiaobo’s case. (To order a copy of the next issue of China Rights Forum, or to subscribe, please contact communications@hrichina.org.)

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