Oslo - The head of the Nobel committee placed this year's peace prize on an empty chair Friday as Beijing raged against the award to dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is languishing in a Chinese prison cell.
As Communist authorities in Beijing fumed at the prize for the 54-year-old author and pro-China demonstrators gathered near the Oslo awards venue, last year's laureate US President Barack Obama led calls for Liu to be set free.
And while a host of countries boycotted the ceremony after pressure from China, those who did attend heard a speech from Liu in which he described the quest for freedom as an unstoppable force.
"We regret that the laureate is not present here today," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said as he placed the peace prize diploma and gold medal on the chair in Oslo City Hall.
"Liu has only exercised his civil rights. He has not done anything wrong. He must be released."
Jagland was echoing calls by Obama, who was last year's winner of the prize, and the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible," the US president said in a statement.
Liu, a former professor who was at the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was jailed in December 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring "Charter 08", a manifesto that spread quickly on the Internet calling for political reform and greater rights in China.
Amid threats from China of "consequences" for countries showing support for Liu, around 20 countries stayed away from Friday's event, but dozens of ambassadors joined Norway's king and queen for the speeches and ceremony in a flower-decked city hall.
Movie stars Denzel Washington and Anne Hathaway, who will host Saturday's Nobel concert in Oslo, as well as outgoing Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi were also among those who gathered to honour Liu and listen to a speech he wrote ahead of his sentencing last year.
"There is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme," read the text, read by Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.
"I hope that I will be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisition and that from now on, no one will be incriminated because of speech."
There was even a show of support for Liu in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong where a crowd cheered as they watched the ceremony on a giant screen at a park.
But on mainland China live broadcasts of the event by CNN and the BBC were blacked out by censors and authorities blasted "the "political theatre" in Oslo.
"Facts fully show that the decision of the Nobel Committee cannot represent the overall majority of the people of the world," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement.
"This kind of political theatre will never shake the determination and the confidence of the people of China to uphold the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics," she added.
Liu, who will receive his medal, diploma and 10 million Swedish kronor (€1.1m, $1.5m) prize money at a later date, was only the second laureate in history that could not attend or send a representative.
The only other time was in 1936 when German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was locked up in a Nazi concentration camp.
The laureate's wife, Liu Xia, has been placed under house arrest since the prize was announced on October 8. During the ceremony, security was reinforced in front of her Beijing apartment complex, with police cars lining the road.
In his speech, Liu hailed his wife's "selfless love," pointing out that "I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart."
The speeches were followed by a concert by a children's choir, which had been expressly requested by the laureate, and a torch lit procession in his honour was to wind through the Norwegian capital later Friday.
The laureates of the Nobel prizes for chemistry, physics, literature and economics will meanwhile collect their awards at a separate ceremony in Stockholm. The winner of the medicine prize, Robert Edwards, who pioneered in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), has not made the trip for health reasons.