Dutch Member of European Parliament Marietje Schaake has jointly nominated jailed Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh and film director Jafar Panahi for the Sakharov Prize 2012.
Ms. Sotoudeh (born in Tehran, 1963) was arrested in September 2010 on suspicion of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. She is currently serving a six-year jail sentence, in solitary confinement, in the notorious Evin prison, in addition to disbarment and a ten-year ban on leaving the country.
Ms. Schaake remarked: “It is virtually impossible for Iranian lawyers to do their work. Clients, often victims of human rights violations, are left defenceless at the mercy of the Iranian authorities and an already flawed justice system”.
Sotoudeh’s work as a lawyer
After Ms. Sotoudeh was admitted to the bar (‘Kanoon Vokala’) in 1995, she was not permitted to practice law for eight years. After earning her lawyer credentials in 2003 she defended numerous human rights activists, including Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, journalist Isa Saharkiz and political activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi.
Ms. Sotoudeh also acted as lawyer of the Iranian-Dutch national Zahra Bahrami, who in January 2011 was hanged in Iran on charges of drug trafficking.
As a lawyer, Ms. Sotoudeh also defended members of the Green Movement, which successfully organized large peaceful protests against the Iranian regime, following the disputed presidential elections in 2009. She furthermore defended juvenile offenders who where sentenced to death.
“By sacrificing her own freedom and persisting in her belief in the fundamental principles of justice and the unbreakable right to a fair trial, Ms. Sotoudeh has become a symbol for all Iranians, particularly those critical of the regime, who are denied access to appropriate, competent legal representations. A basic right and indispensable for a fair trail guarantee”, Ms. Schaake explains.
Jafar Panahi is an Iranian film director, screenwriter and film editor. He first achieved international recognition with his feature film debut “The White Balloon” in 1995, which won the Caméra d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
Giovanni Fazio writes in the Japan Times: Like many Iranian filmmakers — and, indeed, most Iranians with a head on their shoulders — Panahi became an active supporter of 2009’s Green Revolution, that precursor to the Arab Spring that was crushed brutally by the thugs of dubiously elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This was a time when women would take birth-control pills before attending pro-democracy demonstrations, knowing full well the likelihood of being raped if picked up by the police or the Basij militia.
Panahi was arrested once after visiting the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan — a young musician shot dead by the Basij — and a year later, his home was raided by the police. He and his friend, director Mohammad Rasoulof, were jailed on spurious charges, and eventually sentenced to six years in prison, along with a 20-year ban on making films, writing scripts or giving interviews.
“This is Not a Film” is the work Panahi shot while living under house arrest in his Tehran apartment as the trial played out. Smuggled out of the country on a USB memory stick hidden inside a cake, it played at 2011’s Cannes Film Festival and galvanized support for the embattled director, although not enough to overturn his conviction.
The annual human rights prize of the European Parliament has not yet been awarded to an Iranian national. Ms. Schaake believes this would send a powerful message of support to all those Iranians fighting every day for their rights, freedoms and basic human dignity. “Among all the concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, the EU cannot forget the Iranian people. Eventually it is only them who can build a freer and a less dangerous Iran”, Ms. Schaake believes.
Russian punk band Pussy Riot, whose three female musicians were sentenced to two years in prison after staging an anti-Vladimir Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral, are among the candidates for the European Parliament’s annual Sakharov Prize. The trio were nominated by German MEP Werner Schulz supported by the signatures of 45 other MEPs. Candidates for the prize can be nominated either by a political group or by a minimum of 40 MEPs.
Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were convicted on 17 August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in which they called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin. Their sentence caused widespread indignation and condemnation from both the European Union and United States.
Pussy Riot has been publicly backed by dozens of prominent musicians, including Paul McCartney, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Björk, Bryan Adams, Sting and Yoko Ono.
Ales Bialiatski, an imprisoned Belarussian opposition activist; Joseph Francis, an activist assisting victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy law; and three jailed opposition representatives in Rwanda have also been nominated.
The political groups and individual MEPs who nominated the candidates will make presentations of the candidates on 25 September in Brussels. The award ceremony takes place in Strasbourg around 10 December, the day on which the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948.
Among the nominees, the front-runner appears to be Ales Bialiatski, a freedom fighter and human rights defender currently imprisoned by the Belarussian regime. He was nominated by Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski (European People’s Party), who gathered the signatures of other 82 MEPs. The European Parliament has already expressed its support for Bialiatski in a resolution of 15 September 2011. Bialiatski has been also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Francis, the founder and director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement which defends victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, was nominated by the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. Accusations of blasphemy often result in harassment, threats and attacks. Several prominent politicians have been assassinated for their opposition to blasphemy law.
Three imprisoned Rwandan opposition representatives, who have tried to put an end to the cycle of violence by fostering dialogue and reconciliation, were nominated by Spanish MEPs Willy Meyer (Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left), Rosa Estaràs (EPP), María Muñiz (Socialists and Democrats), Ana Miranda (Green/EFA group), and 37 other MEPs. The activists are Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, Déogratias Mushayidi and Bernard Ntaganda.
The Sakharov Prize is awarded in early December as a special award for achievement in the field of human rights and democracy. The prize is worth 50,000 euros. Past winners include Nelson Mandela (1988), Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (1992), China’s Hu Jia (2008) and the activists of the Arab Spring (2011).