Iranian rights activists, lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and film-maker Jafar Panahi, on Friday won the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize, just days after the EU tightened sanctions against Tehran.
The prize “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 parliament president Martin Schulz.
Schulz urged the Iranian authorities to allow the pair to collect their prize in person in December at a parliament sitting in Strasbourg.
He also said a group of five MEPs due to fly to Iran on Sunday for a visit that has caused some controversy in Brussels would attempt to meet the two Sakharov prize-winners. If not they “will return immediately,” he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated the laureates and called on Tehran “to release Sotoudeh immediately, lift the restrictions and sentence on Panahi and release all political prisoners and others detained simply for their religious or political beliefs.”
In London, Amnesty International said Sotoudeh was in ill health due to a hunger strike and had been transferred to the medical facility of Tehran’s Evin prison on Monday.
The rights award comes on the heels of tough new European Union sanctions against Iran, aimed at forcing a breakthrough in talks between global powers and Tehran on its disputed nuclear programme.
After a biting oil embargo took effect in July, EU foreign ministers last week tightened the economic noose by targeting dealings with Iran’s banks, shipping and gas imports.
Welcoming the first award of the Sakharov prize by Iranian rights activists, centrist MEP and former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt said it came at the right time.
“In light of current developments it is also a timely moment,” he said.
“This award sends a strong message of support to all those fighting persecution in Iran every day: we recognise your struggle, we support your fight for basic human rights and we award your courage.”
The two Iranians were shortlisted for the prestigious 50,000-euro ($65,000) prize — whose past winners include Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan — along with the jailed members of Russian all-girl punk band Pussy Riot, and Belarus dissident Ales Beliatsky.
Sotoudeh, a 47-year-old mother of two, is a leading human rights campaigner known for representing opposition activists thrown behind bars after Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential elections, as well as juveniles facing the death penalty, and women.
After being sentenced to 11 years in January 2011 and banned from practising law for 20 years for conspiring against state security, she recently went on hunger strike to protest harassment against her family.
Amnesty said that for the past three months she “has only had visits from her children while behind a glass screen — ever since the authorities discovered she had been using a tissue to write her defence for an upcoming court hearing.”
“The Iranian authorities have imposed a travel ban on her daughter and on one occasion held her husband overnight in prison for their peaceful advocacy on her behalf,” Amnesty said.
Panahi, who is free, is a 52-year-old film-maker repeatedly acclaimed at major international festivals for gritty and socially critical movies that are banned in Iran.
He was arrested for a documentary he tried to make on the unrest following the 2009 election and after being placed under house arrest, he was later sentenced to six years in jail and banned from making more films for 20 years.
Last year, his “This Is Not A Film” had to be smuggled out in a USB key inside a cake to be screened at the Cannes film festival.
The Cannes, Berlin and Venice festivals invited him to sit on their juries in 2010 and 2011 but because he was barred from leaving the country, organisers left a symbolic empty chair for him to remind film-goers of his plight.
Cannes film festival president Gilles Jacob on Friday welcomed the parliament’s award for Panahi.