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BEIJING (Reuters) - Accused in the West of trampling on democratic freedoms and denounced at home by protesters over the conduct of a parliamentary election, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won not only China's support on Friday, but also a peace prize.
The organizers of the Confucius Peace Prize, set up in a riposte to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said they had chosen Putin because of his opposition to the NATO attacks on Libya.
Prize founder Qiao Damo presented this year's award in the form of a 10-inch (25-cm) gold-plated statue of philosopher Confucius to an absent Putin. Russian exchange students raised the trophy aloft at a small ceremony.
Also absent was the $15,000 in cash offered to last year's winner, former Taiwan vice-president Lien Chan.
"He has a righteous heart," Qiao said. "Many people died in the Libya war, not just soldiers, but civilians and children."
Qiao heads the little-known China International Peace Studies Center, which says it is a Hong Kong-registered group with no formal connection to the Chinese government.
Putin's spokesman could not be reached for comment.
China's Foreign Ministry this week declined to comment on the award, but Qiao said the government "in no way opposed it".
Supporters credit Putin with bringing order and improving life for many Russians, but critics say the former KGB agent has rolled back democracy and stifled post-Soviet freedoms.
Several thousand protesters took to Moscow streets to demand an end to Putin's leadership after his United Russia party lost ground in the election.
Western observers criticized the election and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested it was neither free nor fair. Putin accused the United States of stirring up the protests.
But China's Foreign Ministry stood by Putin, saying the results were "universally affirmed" by about 700 observers.
"China believes that this Russian Duma election reflected the wishes of the Russian people. China respects the choice of the Russian people, and supports Russia's choice of a development path that suits its national conditions," ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular press briefing.
When asked about this week's one-year anniversary of Liu being recognized with the Nobel, Hong said Liu had been punished in accordance with the law.
"China is a country of rule of law, and all are equal before the law," he said.
Additional reporting by Reuters Television and Chris Buckley; Writing by Michael Martina