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Nobel Prize for dissident? China scoffs

China Tuesday scoffed at the possibility of its most prominent dissident winning the Nobel Peace Prize, saying such an honor would defy imagination.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said pro-democracy campaigner Wei Jingsheng was a criminal. Wei has spent all but seven months of the past 18 years in custody."Of course it would be inconceivable if the Nobel Peace Prize were conferred to this sort of person," Shen told reporters.

Wei, who is not due to be released until 2009, is believed to be a contender for the prize, to be announced Friday.

Wei's family says he is suffering from severe blood pressure, heart and stomach problems. Chinese Justice Minister Xiao Yang said recently that parole is possible if Wei's health is found to be as bad as his family contends.

Xiao's comments added to speculation that China may release a leading political prisoner before President Jiang Zemin meets President Clinton in Washington later this month.

Awarding Wei the Nobel prize could be awkward for Jiang because it would focus attention on China's human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, Shen said U.N. human rights investigators visiting China at the government's invitation would probably be allowed to visit prisons.