* Rights activists top list of Nobel Peace Prize candidates
* Field wide open, Obama and Sarkozy among candidates
* Committee seen cool on Chinese, Russian dissidents
* Winner to be announced on Friday, Oct. 9 at 0900 GMT
By Wojciech Moskwa
OSLO, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Wanted - a peace maker or rights activist engaged in a current conflict whose influence would benefit greatly from winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
That is who Norway’s Nobel Committee will choose for 2009 Peace Prize laureate if, as experts expect, it returns closer to Alfred Nobel’s notion of peace. Past prizes went to climate campaigners, life-long diplomats and grass-roots economists.
Top contenders for the $1.4 million prize include Colombian peace broker Piedad Cordoba, Afghan rights activist Sima Samar and Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
French-Colombian activist and ex-hostage Ingrid Betancourt, Jordanian interfaith dialogue advocate Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad and U.S. and French presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy are also in the running, although the field remains wide open.
Maltese-based bookmaker Betsafe lists Betancourt at 5-to-1, and Tsvangirai at 6-to-1. Austrialian Centrebet has Cordoba and Samar at 6-to-1 and both Obama and Tsvangirai at 7-to-1.
The secretive five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee does not disclose the nominees. The winner will be announced on Oct. 9.
"It’s quite likely this committee will reward somebody who is engaged in current processes," said Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the International Peace Institute in Oslo (PRIO).
"They want the prize to have an impact on things that are about to happen and want to affect events," he told Reuters.
Last year, Finn Martti Ahtisaari won for three decades of work to resolve numerous international conflicts. The prize was seen as a well-earned lifetime achievement award and did not appear have much impact on ongoing conflicts, critics say.
BIGGEST IMPACT OF PRIZE
Earlier this decade the Nobel committee said it widened the definition of peace to include environmental activism, with Al Gore and the United Nations’ climate panel winning in 2007 and Kenyan conservationist Wangari Maathai in 2004.
Some say this strays too far from Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, in which he says the accolade will go to those who do most for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for peace congresses.
"Giving the prize to someone in the middle of a security conflict, and with a chance of boosting his or her influence, is a wise way to use the power of the Nobel," said Professor Janne Haaland Matlary from Oslo University.
Other leading candidates include Chinese and Russian dissidents, such as Hu Jia and Lidia Yusupova, but some experts say the Nobel Committee will not risk challenging a major power this year, just after two politicians joined the panel.
"A controversial prize that raises severe protests by powerful states or other powerful interests would draw attention to ... the independence of the committee," said Harpviken. (Editing by Louise Ireland)