The nomination of a Chinese activist who died in police custody after being denied medical treatment for a prestigious international award is a boost to the country's nascent rights movement, activists said.
Cao Shunli, 52, was nominated this week for the 2014 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders by an international jury of 10 human rights organizations.
The award recognizes activists "who have shown deep commitment to human rights in the face of great personal risk," U.S.-based rights group and jury member Human Rights in China (HRIC) said in a statement on its website.
The aim of the award is to provide protection through international recognition, according to the award's official website.
Mexico's Alejandra Ancheita and Adilur Rahman Khan of Bangladesh are also on the three-person shortlist.
Cao, who died in a Beijing hospital on March 14, is the first in the award's history to receive a posthumous nomination, HRIC said.
"The award reflects strong international support for an independent investigation into her death, and holding the authorities accountable for reprisals against human rights defenders," the group said.
Cao, a law graduate of the prestigious Beijing University, had been a vigorous advocate of access to information, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly since 2008, and had served more than two years in a "re-education through labor" camp, as well as been subjected to continual harassment by the authorities, the award website said.
"This is a tragic example of reprisals suffered by human rights defenders who work with international human rights mechanisms," it said.
Calls for investigation
Michael Ineichen of the International Service for Human Rights called on the U.N. to push for an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Cao's illness and death.
Cao, who had been in police custody since September last year, was admitted to intensive care at the Beijing Qinghe 999 in February, and later transferred to the 309 Military Hospital where she died on March 14.
Lawyers say they had urged officials holding her to allow her medical treatment but no action was taken until she was seriously ill. She suffered from tuberculosis in both her lungs, cirrhosis of the liver, and uterine fibroids.
The Martin Ennals nomination recognizes Cao's courageous efforts in advancing official transparency and citizen participation in China, HRIC said.
Beijing-based rights campaigner Hu Jia said Cao's place on the list of three finalists for the award, which is presented in an October ceremony in Geneva, was a fitting honor.
"She made the greatest sacrifice possible; that of her life," Hu told RFA in an interview on Thursday.
"Her entire life was a persuasive account of [China's] human rights situation."
Hu said Cao's family and supporters are still campaigning vigorously for an independent investigation into her death.
"Cao Shunli's death has brought a great deal of pressure and restriction to bear on the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party; hundreds of times more than when she was still alive," he said.
'Gave her life'
Cao's lawyer Wang Yu said the nomination would bring a huge boost to China's rights movement, amid growing pressure from the authorities.
"I hope she does eventually win this award, because she fully deserves it," Wang said. "She basically gave her life in the cause of human rights in China."
"No one else in [China's] recent history has done more than she did."
Meanwhile, Wu Juntai, who works for jury member Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said Cao's family would receive prize money of 20,000 Swiss francs (U.S. $22,700) if she won the award.
"If she wins, the organization running it will invite her family to Geneva to receive the award," Wu said. "It is hoped that this prize will go to protect and guarantee their past and future human rights work, as well as protecting their own family."
Cao Shunli was detained by Beijing police at the international airport last September en route to Switzerland to take part in a U.N. Human Rights Council review.
She had earlier joined a rare protest outside China's foreign ministry in June last year to demand greater participation in the U.N.'s review of human rights in China.
China won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in November along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, despite criticism of their rights records.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.