OSLO A Chinese dissident and an Afghan women's campaigner lead candidates for the 2010 Nobel Peace prize as the Nobel Committee seeks a more traditional candidate after criticism of the 2009 choice of President Barack Obama.
The row triggered by the Norwegian Nobel Committee's award to Obama less than nine months into his term is likely to push the secretive panel to select a laureate with a longer record of accomplishment this year, Nobel watchers said.
"They may instinctively opt for someone more traditional, with a strong track record in human rights or peace-making," said Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the PRIO peace think-tank.
The Nobel watchers said last year's decision to give the award to Obama drew more criticism than the Nobel Committee expected, which could favor a "safer" choice in 2010.
Harpviken's pick is Sima Samar, an Afghan doctor and women's rights activist who chairs a human rights committee in her war-torn country and who has also led rights efforts in Sudan.
Analysts say picking Samar would be a safer choice and shine the Nobel's light on the issue of treatment of women in Afghanistan and in the Muslim world. It would also boost her credentials in influencing Afghan policy.
Another leading candidate is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese literature professor serving an 11-year jail term for seeking democratic reform in China.
Awarding Liu the prize would focus attention on China's human rights record at a time when Beijing seeks to play a bigger role on the global stage.
Liu is behind bars for "inciting subversion of state power" by signing a 2008 manifesto calling for talks on multi-party democracy in China. He was endorsed by former Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and is a runaway favorite among bookmakers.
CHINA WARNED NORWAY
China has warned Norway that bilateral ties would be at risk and it had strongly criticized Oslo after the 1989 prize went to Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Some analysts said giving the prize to Liu would also open the five-member Nobel Committee to criticism for straying too far from Alfred Nobel's intended focus on peace and disarmament.
"The committee is under very considerable pressure from many sources," said Jan Egeland, head of the NUPI foreign relations institute in Oslo. "Many argue that this is not a prize for human rights or freedom of expression but for peace."
The Swedish dynamite inventor's 1895 will specifies the peace prize should be given "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses."
But over time the definition of peace has been stretched to include human rights and in the past decade the environment.
Ireland-based bookmaker Paddy Power said that 90 percent of bets placed on the Nobel Peace prize over the past five days were for the Chinese dissident, which forced it to pay out "winnings" to those who had bet on Liu and change the odds.
Paddy Power now has Liu at 4 to 5 odds, compared to 6 to 1 last week. Fellow Chinese dissident Hu Jia is at 10 to 1, along with former U.N. human rights commissioner and Irish President Mary Robinson. Samar is at 12 to 1, along with Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the Memorial human rights group focused on the former Soviet Union.
"The race is wide open," NUPI's Egeland told Reuters.
The Nobel Committee was criticized for giving the prize to Obama even though he was in the midst of two wars inherited from his predecessor. He also lacked substantial wins in foreign policy and had not yet begun to implement his vision for a nuclear-free world.
"Our picks are often controversial," said Geir Lundestad, the committee's permanent secretary who does not cast a vote.
"The committee is happy about last year's choice," he told Reuters. "We are encouraged by the American-Russian treaty on nuclear weapons and are hoping and praying that his (Obama's) efforts to find peace in the Middle East are successful."