STOCKHOLM A flustered Mo Yan, the Chinese winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, steered clear of human rights issues and refused on Thursday to back a petition by fellow laureates for jailed compatriot and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
A group of 134 Nobel laureates including the Dalai Lama, wrote to Chinese Communist Party chief and president-in-waiting Xi Jinping urging him to release Liu, who won the prize two years ago. They also want Xi to free Liu's wife.
The case has drawn attention to China's human rights record, although China says Liu is a criminal and decries such criticism as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs.
Mo, the first Chinese national to win the $1.2 million literature prize who was in Stockholm to receive the award, refused to express support for Liu, and sometimes appeared agitated after repeated questions over Liu at a news conference.
The writer also defended censorship as sometimes necessary, comparing it to security checks at airports.
"I have already issued my opinion about this matter (over Liu)," he told journalists in Stockholm through a translator, days ahead of the formal award ceremony.
In October, after the award announcement, Mo said he hoped that Liu would achieve his freedom as soon as possible.
"I have said this prize is about literature. Not for politics," said the 57-year-old whose adopted pen name Mo Yan means "don't speak".
Despite world attention on days of Nobel prize events in Stockholm, Mo shunned any chance of making a clear call for Liu's freedom.
"I am sure you know what I said that day (in October). Why do you want to repeat that? Time is precious," he said when pressed over Liu.
"I have never praised a system of censorship, but also censorship exists in every country," he added. "There is only a difference of a degree of censorship."
Pressed on whether he would support the call from the laureates, Mo said: "I have always been independent. I like it that way ... when I am forced to express my opinion, I will not do it."
Mo was being accompanied on his Stockholm trip by a Chinese official, raising questions over whether the author was under pressure not to say anything about politics.
A number of dissidents and other writers have said Mo was unworthy of winning as he had shied away from commenting on Liu's plight. They have also denounced him for commemorating a speech by former paramount leader Mao Zedong.
Hu Jia, one of China's most prominent dissidents, told Reuters he was "very disappointed" by Mo's statements on Thursday.
"Could he not just say one sentence in his (Liu's) support?" Hu said.
In November, Herta Muller, who won the Nobel literature prize in 2009, called the Nobel award for Mo a "catastrophe".
Liu, a veteran dissident involved in 1989 pro-democracy protests crushed by the Chinese army, won the prize in 2010. He had been jailed the year before and is serving an 11-year sentence. His wife Liu Xia is under house arrest.
Mo is best known in the West for "Red Sorghum", which portrays the hardships endured by farmers in the early years of communist rule and was made into a film directed by Zhang Yimou.
His books also include "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" and "The Republic of Wine".
(This story corrects the reference to the Nobel award for Mo, instead of for Liu, in fourth-from-last paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Louise Ireland)