- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

BEIJING (AP) - Amnesty International awarded its top honor Tuesday to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who has spent years shining light on his country’s restrictive political atmosphere, and to U.S. folk singer Joan Baez for her civil rights activism.

Both were named recipients of Amnesty’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, which recognizes lifetime human rights leadership.

Ai told The Associated Press that the award reminded him of his social responsibilities as an artist, especially as the Chinese government tightens its grip on free expression and activism.

He noted that the repression was affecting “ordinary people around us concerned about basic issues” while answering a question about five women’s rights activists who remain in custody for planning anti-sexual harassment protests.

“I think as an artist, I use my own way to fulfill my responsibility to society,” the bearded 57-year-old said. “Whether we have compassion for our own people or other countries, we all have to take responsibility.”

Baez was cited by Amnesty International for her involvement in the U.S. civil rights activism since the 1960s.

Over the past four years, Ai has paid a high price for his activism, having been beaten by the authorities, imprisoned and blocked from leaving the country. In the process, he’s become one of China’s most internationally known figures, a fame that has partially protected him.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined comment on the award, but said China hopes Amnesty can regard China “objectively.”

Ai made his first big splash by helping design Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics. He fell afoul of Chinese authorities after taking up causes such as those of parents angry over what they said was shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing hundreds of children.

Ai said Tuesday that he hasn’t had a passport since his 2011 arrest for tax evasion, which he has called politically motivated, but still hoped he would be able to attend the May 21 award ceremony in Berlin.

Previous award winners include Myanmar dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and Irish rock band U2.


Associated Press writer Louise Watt contributed to this report.

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