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Hong Kong publisher and pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai is escorted into a Correctional Services van outside the Court of Final Appeal, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 1, 2021.STR/Getty Images

A pair of U.S. lawmakers have nominated Hong Kong publisher and pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai for the Nobel Peace Prize, along with jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and Chinese legal activists Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong.

In a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Norway, Representative Chris Smith and Senator Jeffrey Merkley, chairs of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said the nominees deserved recognition for “their deep commitment to human rights and peace” in China and Hong Kong.

“All four are arbitrarily detained, serving long sentences for exercising rights guaranteed them by international law,” they wrote.

The last person in China to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Liu Xiaobo in 2010 for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Mr. Liu was jailed the year before for “inciting subversion” and died in 2017, only the second Nobel laureate to die in state custody.

Mr. Ilham, a critic of Chinese policies in Xinjiang and an advocate for the Uyghur language and culture, was arrested in 2014 and later sentenced to life in prison for “separatism.” He has won numerous human-rights awards, including the Sakharov Prize in 2019, chosen by the European Parliament, which recognized him as a “voice of moderation and reconciliation” and urged his immediate release.

Mr. Ding and Mr. Xu are both lawyers and founders of the New Citizens Movement, which advocated for civil rights and a transition to democratic rule. The group grew out of a wider push in the 2000s by activists and lawyers to assert and protect freedoms guaranteed under the Chinese constitution by filing legal cases, exposing corruption and holding demonstrations.

Last year, they were sentenced to 12 and 14 years in prison respectively for “subversion of state power,” after a years-long crackdown on the civil-rights movement. In a statement, Mr. Xu said he had been jailed “for expressing my desire for a beautiful China and for calling on Chinese to become real citizens.”

Mr. Lai, publisher of the Hong Kong pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, is currently on trial for breaching a national-security law imposed on the Chinese territory by Beijing after mass protests in 2019, which the government has accused Mr. Lai of masterminding in concert with foreign conspirators.

While his now-defunct newspaper was a cheerleader of the pro-democracy movement for decades, the 2019 protests were largely spontaneous and leaderless and notable for the lack of influence Mr. Lai and other members of the traditional opposition had over them.

Mr. Lai has pleaded not guilty, and his supporters have denounced the trial as a sham. Last month, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously adopted a resolution calling for his release.

Many of those testifying against Mr. Lai are former allies of the tycoon, including Andy Li, who was detained and imprisoned in China in 2020 after trying to flee from Hong Kong to Taiwan by boat. On Wednesday, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Alice Jill Edwards, raised concerns over reports Mr. Li was abused while in custody and coerced into testifying.

“I am deeply concerned that evidence that is expected to be presented against Jimmy Lai imminently may have been obtained as a result of torture or other unlawful treatment,” Ms. Edwards said. “An investigation into these allegations must be conducted immediately, before any evidence is admitted into these present proceedings.”

Prosecutors have not responded to Ms. Edwards. Previously, the government has denounced all outside criticism of Mr. Lai’s trial as “interference” in the judicial process.

This week, Hong Kong announced plans to introduce new legislation to criminalize espionage, treason and leaking state secrets, which Chief Executive John Lee said was necessary to root out “foreign agents and advocates of Hong Kong independence [that] are still lurking in our society.”

Human-rights groups, business leaders and foreign governments have criticized the proposed law, which appears to be based on similar legislation in China and could shake investor confidence in the territory just as it is trying to recover from the pandemic and boost the economy.

Responding to Mr. Lai’s nomination, his lawyer Jonathan Price said the publisher “thoroughly deserves this recognition for standing up for his values – and for his right to campaign peacefully for those values – in the face of years of persecution, prosecution and incarceration by the Chinese state.”

“He could have left Hong Kong but he stayed and stood up to be counted, for which he is paying a heavy price,” Mr. Price added. “It is to people like Jimmy Lai that we should all look to take inspiration – from his courage, humility and strength, and because he has made a commitment to doing what is right, no matter what the cost.”

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