|The boycott of the Nobel ceremony for jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo by some nations has drawn wide criticism [AFP]
The president of the Philippines has said that no representative from his country was sent to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway because of efforts to spare the lives of five citizens on death row in China.
Benigno Aquino said the absence of his envoy at the ceremony in Oslo on Friday did not mean his government did not champion democracy and human rights.
"Our interest [is] to advance our citizens' needs first," he said in an interview published on Sunday in the The Daily Inquirer, a newspaper in the Philippines.
"It's in our national interest that we do not, at this time, send a representative to the Nobel award rites."
Aquino said he had already sent a letter to the Chinese government seeking clemency for five Filipinos sentenced to death for drug trafficking.
The comments were Aquino's first since coming under fire from local and regional human rights groups.
The official reason for the no-show was a scheduling clash but several top-level officials have admitted privately that Manila wanted to appease China.
The Philippines is one of 17 countries that boycotted the presentation ceremony.
On Wednesday, Elaine Pearson, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, expressed shock and disappointment over Manila's move to align with China, and for failing to live up to its promise to promote human rights in Asia.
"This is an abdication of our moral duty to the world as the source of people power, of liberal democracy. [The boycott] was a regrettable decision, because in effect what we did was to support an affront on freedom of expression"
Harry Roque, chairman, Centre for International Law, Manila
China had reacted furiously to the Nobel Committee's award of this year's honour to Liu Xiaobo, jailed for 11 years last December on subversion charges.
It repeatedly warned governments around the world that ties would be harmed if they attended the ceremony.
Outraged at the award, Beijing demonised Liu in state media and portrayed the Nobel prize as a Western propaganda tool to undermine China.
The Philippines foreign affairs department said the death sentences of the five Filipinos were under review by China's highest court, and could be commuted to life imprisonment if clemency is granted.
Sun Yi, a Chinese embassy spokesman in the Philippines, confirmed on Sunday that Aquino had written to Beijing about the prisoners but denied the issue was linked to Manila's decision to skip the Nobel ceremony.
The Philippines has no death penalty, while China executes more prisoners than any other country and applies capital punishment to a range of crimes.
Aquino also said that his government was seeking "closure" with China over the killings of eight Hong Kong tourists during a hostage crisis on August 23 in Manila.
The police response to the hostage-taking was widely criticised as inept, and affected bilateral diplomatic ties.
The Nobel was awarded in absentia to Liu, who was represented by an empty chair after China barred him and his wife from attending the ceremony.
Alberto Romulo, the Philippines foreign secretary, also said that Manila's move should not be interpreted as "taking sides with China".
Speaking on Thursday, he said that the government remains "clear and consistent to its fight for human rights".
Romulo cited the campaign by the Philippines in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate.
Myanmar's military government released her from prolonged detention last month.
Harry Roque, an activist lawyer and chair of the Manila-based Centre for International Law, said China should not have been allowed "into bullying us not to attend the ceremony".
"This is an abdication of our moral duty to the world as the source of people power, of liberal democracy," Roque told the AFP news agency earlier this week.
"That was a regrettable decision, because in effect what we did was to support an affront on freedom of expression."