Nobel peace committee aims to stop eavesdroppers

OSLO Sat Oct 6, 2012 6:35am EDT

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OSLO (Reuters) - The Nobel Peace Prize committee is tightening security to prevent eavesdroppers on decisions that can infuriate the powerful.

"We have taken certain precautions," Geir Lundestad, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, told Reuters in his office in central Oslo.

The winner has already been chosen from about 230 candidates, but his or her name will remain secret until the formal 2012 award on October 12.

"Leaks in general have not been a problem. But we want to protect that record."

One fear is of lip-readers, perhaps using telescopes from nearby buildings. "You just pull down the curtains and there are no lips to read," Lundestad said.

"Cellphones are terrible from a security point of view ... We never bring cellphones into the room because they give experts easy access," he added. Phones can be activated remotely and used as listening devices.

The committee had taken advice from security consultants on other measures Lundestad declined to discuss.

He said the prize had huge impact on the lives of winners, including as an aid for Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kui who won in 1991 for her pro-democracy campaign while in detention. She was freed in 2010 and visited Oslo in June, 2012.

The 2010 award to dissident Liu Xiaobo infuriated the Chinese government. Liu is still in jail for subversion.

"You wonder, when the Chinese are so afraid of the prize, maybe the effect of the prize is greater than we think," Lundestad said.

Myanmar, with its recent moves towards democracy, "also gives you hope with Liu Xiaobo that something could happen in the distant future".

WALESA'S STRUGGLE

Poland's Lech Walesa has credited the 1983 award with helping his struggle as a union leader and contributing to the fall of Soviet-led communism across Eastern Europe.

Lundestad quoted Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker to the poor who won in 2006, as saying: "Before I got the prize, I shouted and nobody heard it; after I got the prize, I whispered and everybody listened."

Candidates for this years' prize mentioned in Norwegian media include Maggie Gobran, a Christian who works to help the poor in Cairo's slums, American Gene Sharp, who works on non-violence, or Russian rights group Memorial.

The 2011 prize went to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, her compatriot peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni democracy campaigner Tawakkol Karman.

Lundestad declined to discuss the 2012 award. The head of the committee has said the final decision was taken on Monday.

Lundestad said the people best placed to eavesdrop would be at the U.S. embassy, diagonally across the street from the Nobel Institute - but hastened to add that Washington's diplomats were not under suspicion.

"We know they have excellent equipment but we know that they do not listen in because we all saw how surprised Obama was when his prize was announced in 2009," he said.

Lundestad said the committee had held "very pleasant" meetings without the acrimony that diaries of one former chairman show from the 1950s or 1960s. But he said there were two highly sensitive areas.

"We all know how divided Norway is on the European Union and we all know that Norway is ... divided on the Middle East. If you keep the EU and the Middle East out, it's very easy," he said.

The last time a committee member resigned was in 1994 in protest to the award to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who shared the prize with Israeli leaders for a failed peace plan.

Norway has voted "No" to joining the European Union twice. The prize has never gone to the EU or a related body.

Overall, he said there were hopeful signs for peace in the world with a long-term decline in conflicts. "If you look at the big picture there is reason to be quite optimistic," he said.

Lundestad dismissed suggestions that the peace prize had drifted away from the intentions of its founder, Sweden's Alfred Nobel, for instance by creating prizes for protection of the environment in 2007.

"I don't think the committee members regret anything at all, quite on the contrary," he said.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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