There is every expectation that when this year's Nobel Peace Prize is celebrated in Oslo on Dec. 10, the star of the ceremony will not be any of its powerful guests, but rather one conspicuously empty chair.
Nobel organizers and supporters have all but given up hope that close family of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Peace Prize laureate, will be allowed to leave China to attend the ceremony. And though there is no playbook for such a scenario, there is wide agreement that the best course is to celebrate as usual, but not to hand out the prize itself.
In theory, there is no explicit rule preventing the Nobel committee from having someone other than Mr. Liu or his immediate family accept the Nobel medal and diploma on his behalf - for instance, one of the members of International PEN, an association of writers dedicated to free expression that was instrumental in getting Mr. Liu nominated. But Nobel officials never seriously considered that possibility.
"This was not a difficult decision," said Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. "We feel that we have to be absolutely certain that we hand over the medal, the diploma and certainly the cheque [for nearly $1.5-million] to the proper person."
A dissident writer and former literary critic, Mr. Liu began serving 11 years in prison for subversion last year, and some feel his absence could make the ceremony more meaningful, not less.
Mr. Liu's picture will be prominently displayed near his empty chair, and one of two planned speeches will consist of Liv Ullmann, a famous Norwegia actress, reading a text by Mr. Liu "so that his voice is heard," Mr. Lundestad said. A banquet for some 250 guests will follow at Oslo's Grand Hotel, as is the tradition, and a concert hosted by Denzel Washington and Anne Hathaway will also go ahead the following day.
Tienchi Martin-Liao, president of International PEN's Independent Chinese Centre, will attend the prize ceremony and was in contact with Mr. Liu's wife, Liu Xia, until she was placed under house arrest in October. Ms. Martin-Liao said she will decline if she is asked to accept the prize on Mr. Liu's behalf.
"My personal opinion, and I'm not the only one, is that Liu Xiaobo is the only person who should receive this honour. If he cannot come out, and his wife cannot, well then let it be. And we hope that some day he can come out and he can take the award," she said by telephone from Sweden.
Meanwhile, her Canadian colleague John Ralston Saul, the president of International PEN who will also attend the ceremony, believes China has misjudged the effect of the prize going unclaimed.
"The Chinese government is wrong to think that it is to their disadvantage to have this prize received," he said.
Should Mr. Liu's wife or a close family member find a way to be there, Dr. Lundestad said, "we can improvise on the spur of the moment," but at this point "that seems unlikely." Ms. Martin-Liao said it is apparent that Mr. Liu's family has received "the order from the [Chinese]authorities that they are not allowed to leave the country," she said.
Only four other Nobel Peace Prize laureates have been unable to accept the award in person as a result of conditions in their home countries: journalist and Nazi opponent Carl von Ossietzky in 1935; Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov in 1975; Polish human rights activist Lech Walesa in 1983; and Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. In the latter three cases, the medal was given to a close family member, but not in Mr. Von Ossietzky's case. In 1936, a German lawyer accepted Mr. Von Ossietsky's cash prize for him, but as Mr. Lundestad recalls, "[the lawyer]was a fraud, and he was convicted to two years hard labour."
Mr. Lundestad said the Nobel committee is confident "the day will come" when Mr. Liu will be free to collect his medal and diploma, and to deliver his Nobel lecture. Until then, his empty chair may serve only to heighten his distinction.
"We are prepared to make the argument that in our 109-year history, the most significant prizes may well have been those when the laureate was not present," Mr. Lundestad said. "This is our honour roll, so to speak."