EU Awards Iranian Dissidents With Sakharov Prize

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The European Parliament has announced that Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi will receive this year's prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, highlighting the need for international recognition of human rights activists worldwide.

Jointly nominated, the two activists were awarded 50,000-euros ($65,000) for their courage and dedication in speaking out against the oppressive rule in Iran.

Sotoudeh, 45, is still in prison serving an eleven-year sentence in solitary confinement on suspicion of "spreading propaganda" and conspiring to harm "state security," while Panahi, 52, remains under house arrest.

“The award... is a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own,” said European Parliament President Martin Schulz as he announced the winners.

A lawyer and a mother, Sotoudeh has defended many Iranian opposition activists and politicians, journalists, as well as prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors. Her clients include Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, the noted journalist Isa Saharkhiz, and Dutch national Zahra Bahrami, who was hanged last year on drug trafficking charges.

Sotoudeh wrote in a letter to her children -- whom she was forbidden to see, as a punishment for not wearing a chador, a full length traditional garment -- “I know that you need water, food, housing, a family, parents, love, and visits with your mother."

"However, just as much, you need freedom, social security, the rule of law, and justice."

Sotoudeh has not only defended women who were jailed for demanding equality, but also journalists who were punished for expressing their opinions. Many times, she took these cases pro bono, insisting on the need for Iranian authorities to uphold the rule of law and justice.

Her brave activism has made her and her family an easy target.

According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Sotoudeh began a hunger strike on October 17, refusing to consume anything but water to protest against a travel ban that was placed on her daughter, as well as restriction on her family visiting her.

Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan said she appeared “very thin and weak” when he visited her on October 21, but she refused to stop her strike protest.

The UN Special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, had urged Iranian authorities to consider releasing Sotoudeh, but no official so far had spoken about the issue.

On the other hand, the independent filmmaker Jafar Panahi is about to face a six-year sentence after his latest appeal was turned down by a Tehran appeal court. Since 2011, Panahi has been placed under a 20-year ban against producing any more films, but the prohibition did not stop him from making his most recent documentary in 2011 called "This is Not a Film," which recorded a day of his life.

The film had to be smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden inside a cake in order to be premiered at the Cannes film festival in May.

Panahi won numerous awards, including the Golden Lion at Venice Film festival in 2000 and the Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach) in Cannes in 2010, but his humanistic films that portrayed the grim realities of everyday life in Iran placed him in jeopardy with government authorities.

He was arrested numerous times in 2009 and 2010, and has been denied permission to leave the country. Some of his colleagues have also been placed in jail for their outspoken criticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought has been awarded annually by the European Parliament since 1988. Famous prior recipients include Nelson Mandela (1988) and Aung San Suu Kyi (1990).

The nominees this year include the jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot and a Belarussian civil rights activist named Ales Beliatsky.

Last year, the prize was given to five representatives of the Arab Spring leaders in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia.

The award is named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.

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