Jane Macartney in Beijing

One of the world¡¯s most prestigious literary awards will be bestowed today on Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and writer. But the man himself will spend the day in a windowless cell, unaware of the honour.

The 54-year-old writer has been in detention since December 8, when police took him from his home for questioning for his role as author of the Charter 08 appeal, made public on the same day, which calls for freedom of speech and democratic reforms in China.

Mr Liu is to receive the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of the PEN American Centre, said: ¡°The liberties that allow all of us to make meaningful lives have always depended, alas, on those who are willing, like Liu Xiaobo, to put their own freedom at risk. His consistent self-sacrifice for the cause of democracy in China should inspire all freedom¡¯s friends around the world. I am filled with admiration ¨C indeed, with awe ¨C each time I read about the extraordinary things he has done.¡±

Mr Liu's wife, Liu Xia, told The Times: ¡°I miss him. I just want him to come home." Ms Liu, an artist with no interest in politics, sits in an apartment whose walls are decorated with black and white photographic portraits of her husband. She has seen him only twice since police raided the apartment, taking away her husband along with papers, mobile phones and his computers.

He is being held at an unknown location under a form of house arrest that allows the police to detain him for up to six months, although his detention may be extended. He has not been allowed access to a lawyer.

Ms Liu has been taken to meet him, also at an undisclosed location, once on New Year¡¯s Day and once last month. She said that he appeared to be in better spirits on her second visit. Asked if she feared that her husband could be formally arrested and charged with a crime, Ms Liu said: ¡°We are both prepared for the worst.

¡°I just want him to be treated in accordance with the law. The authorities must respect the law. And I would like him to see sunlight.¡±

Mr Liu¡¯s only glimpse of daylight came from a skylight in his bathroom that adjoined the room where he was being held in solitary confinement, she said. He had not been allowed outside for exercise. She took him about 80 books as well as notebooks and pens, but about 30 of the books were returned to her along with pens and paper; police told her that he was not allowed to write.

¡°It seemed to me that they were mainly allowing him only to read novels. But he does now have a television and he has always enjoyed watching sport.¡±

Mr Liu, an academic who came to prominence in the mid-1980s as a literary critic, is no stranger to China's prisons. He has been arrested repeatedly since he spent 20 months in detention after the 1989 student-led protests that ended with the June 4 Tiananmen Square confrontation. He was jailed for three years in the 1990s but remains among the most outspoken critics of the system.

He was among the 303 initial signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto consciously modelled on the Charter 77 drawn up by Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia, but is the only one to have been detained. Several thousand people have added their names to the charter since he was arrested.

Friends fear Mr Liu will remain in detention past the anniversary of Tiananmen and, possibly, the celebrations on October 1 of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People¡¯s Republic.

Ms Liu said: ¡°Xiaobo had thought he might be taken in for the anniversary of June 4 but he didn¡¯t think that Charter 08 would cause his arrest.¡± She issued an appeal last week in The Washington Post asking President Barack Obama to raise his case.