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Norway trade minister too 'sick' for Nobel

 FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2010 file photo, Norway's Trade Minister Trond Giske is seen in Oslo, Norway. Giske's absence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremo...
 FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2010 file photo, Norway's Trade Minister Trond Giske is seen in Oslo, Norway. Giske's absence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremo...

Norway Nobel

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2010 file photo, Norway's Trade Minister Trond Giske is seen in Oslo, Norway. Giske's absence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremo...

Norway Nobel

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2010 file photo, Norway's Trade Minister Trond Giske is seen in Oslo, Norway. Giske's absence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremo...

Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo's empty chair was a powerful symbol at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony held in his honor.
Few noticed another absence at Oslo's City Hall: Norwegian Trade Minister Trond Giske, who is in charge of talks on a groundbreaking trade pact with China.
Giske skipped the Dec. 10 ceremony _ the highlight of the year in Norway _ because he "was sick," his spokeswoman, Anne Cecilie Lund, told The Associated Press this week. The no-show didn't raise eyebrows at the time because Norway was represented by the royal family and top members of the center-left government, including Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.
Now questions are being raised about whether Giske's sudden illness and equally sudden recovery _ he skipped just one day of work _ was an attempt to appease the infuriated Chinese government and get trade talks back on track.
The minister has refused to discuss his illness, but opposition politicians are beginning to seek answers.
"If he had a cold he could just have said so. I think it is an attempt to get Norway back into trade negotiations with China," said Peter Gitmark, the opposition Conservative Party's spokesman on human rights.
Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence for sedition after co-authoring a bold appeal for human rights and multiparty democracy known as Charter 08.
China reacted with outrage when the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Oct. 8 declared him the winner of the 2010 peace prize. Beijing said relations with Norway would suffer, canceled or postponed a string of meetings with Norwegian officials and pressured governments to boycott the ceremony. Besides China, 16 countries declined invitations to attend, including Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
The prize put Norway, a staunch defender of human rights around the world, in a tough spot. Oslo has long called for Liu's release as part of its human rights dialogue with China. But it also aims to become the first European country to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with China.
While expressing support for Liu, Norwegian officials lost no opportunity to remind China that the government has no influence on the decisions of the independent Nobel committee.
But by Giske's absence, the government may have tried to send a signal that it doesn't want to jeopardize the trade ties, many observers say.
"If he had been there it could possibly cause him problems later in the trade negotiations," said Halvor Eifring, a China expert at the University of Oslo.
Giske's office declined repeated requests for an interview with the minister. His spokeswoman confirmed Giske was in the office the day before the ceremony, which was on a Friday, and on the following Monday. She would not give other details.
"There is no controversy about the fact that the minister was sick, and he should not have to elaborate on the details of his illness," Lund said in an e-mail.
Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, declined to comment on Giske's absence.
Norwegian media have reported that trade negotiations stalled after the award was announced, though Norway's Trade Ministry insists they are ongoing at a lower level.
Norway is hoping for slashed tariffs on exports of fish, machinery, chemicals and other products to the gigantic Chinese market. In 2009 Norway's exports to China were valued at 16.1 billion kroner ($2.7 billion). Imports from China reached 32.6 billion kroner ($4.5 billion), mainly machinery, clothes, electronics, furniture and toys.
Oeyvind Korsberg, an opposition lawmaker from the right-wing Progress Party, said he doubted Giske was too sick to make it to the Nobel event, but added that such a conciliatory gesture toward China was in order to protect the trade talks.
"Giske has not been willing to comment further on his illness and I take that as an admission that it was politically motivated," Korsberg said. "I find no reason to criticize him for that."
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Associated Press writer Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-27 12:18 GMT+08:00