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Handke faces protests at Nobel Prize ceremony

2 min 58Approximate reading time

Nobel literature laureate Peter Handke faced protests and boycotts over his backing of Serbia during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia as he received his prize at a gala ceremony on Tuesday in Stockholm.

The Swedish Academy's pick for the 2019 prize, announced in October, triggered outrage in the Balkans and beyond because of Handke's support for late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

The 77-year-old Austrian author received his award from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony with this year's other laureates, followed by a gala banquet attended by more than 1,200 special guests.

The Academy honoured Handke "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience".

It called him "one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War".

But the award has stirred controversy. One Nobel committee member resigned over the choice, while Tuesday's ceremony was boycotted by one Academy member and representatives of the embassies of Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Turkey boycotted Tuesday's ceremony.

As Handke received the prize in Stockholm's Concert Hall, hundreds of protesters gathered in two locations in the city to oppose the award, including a handful of people outside the building holding banners urging him to "apologise to the victims of Srebrenica".

In 1997 Handke was accused of minimising Serb war crimes in his book "A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia".

He also drew criticism for speaking at the 2006 funeral of Milosevic, who died while on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday slammed the choice of Handke, saying "the Nobel has no value".

"Granting the Nobel Literature Prize on Human Rights Day to a figure who denies the genocide in Bosnia and Herzogovina is nothing less than rewarding human rights violations," he told Turkish television.

Handke's award came as the Academy struggles to recover from a rape scandal that resulted in the 2018 prize being postponed and awarded this year to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.

- 'It's literature' -

Between 500 and 1,000 people attended anti-Handke protest at the Norrmalmstorg square in central Stockholm.

Some waved Bosnian flags and wore white armbands, a nod to Bosnian Serb authorities who in May 1992 ordered non-Serbs to wear white armbands.

"He's allowed to write what he wants. The problem is that he is being honoured for his writings," Teufika Sabanovic, the organiser of the larger protest, told AFP.

"He defends war criminals, he qualifies genocide, he qualifies genocide deniers. Where is the limit for what is acceptable?" she said.

Born in Srebrenica in 1990, she lost her father and 70 percent of her relatives in the hamlet when some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, which the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has recognised as a genocide.

"He has expressed solidarity and sympathy for people who have carried out so many evil things during the war in Bosnia," said Ernada Osmic, a Bosnian refugee who came to Sweden in 1995 and who attended the protest with her 27-year-old daughter Lejla.

Awarding the prize to Handke was "the wrong decision", she said.

At a Stockholm press conference before the ceremony, Handke dodged questions on the Balkan wars, telling reporters: "I like literature, not opinions."

But in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit in late November, he defended his writings.

"Not one word I have written about Yugoslavia can be denounced, not a single one. It's literature," he said.

Back then, "reporting about Serbia was monotone and one-sided," Handke told Die Zeit.

He said he "of course" had to be at Milosevic's funeral.

"He voted against dissolving Yugoslavia in one of the last ballots. His funeral was Yugoslavia's funeral too," Handke said. "Have people forgotten that this state was founded in opposition to Hitler's Reich?"

The head of the Swedish Academy's Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, has insisted Handke is "not a political writer".

But another committee member, Peter Englund, disagreed.

"I will not participate in Nobel Week this year... Celebrating Peter Handke's Nobel Prize would be pure hypocrisy on my part," Englund said.

Handke had previously called for the Nobel Literature Prize to be abolished, saying in 2014 that it conferred a "false canonisation" on the laureate.

At the Nobel banquet on Tuesday evening, the author was to be the laureate seated farthest from the king and queen at the head table, while Tokarczuk was to be seated between the king and Prince Daniel, the husband of Crown Princess Victoria.

Organisers have refused to comment on the seating arrangements.

Handke has not been invited to a traditional event for literature laureates with high school students in a Stockholm suburb on Wednesday, where many students are of foreign background. Tokarczuk will however attend.

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