Award champions human rights defenders in authoritarian states

Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison in December.

All three finalists for this year’s Martin Ennals Award are either detained, banned from travel or in some way silenced by governments in the authoritarian states where they work.

A Chinese human rights lawyer, a journalist documenting violations in Turkmenistan and a Saudi Arabian women's rights activist have been named as the finalists of this year's Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders.

Loujain al-Hathloul, Soltan Achilova and Yu Wensheng were recognised “for their bravery and deep commitment to the issues they defend,” the Geneva foundation said in a statement on Monday. Sometimes known as the Nobel Prize for human rights, the prestigious award recognises individuals who have sacrificed their own freedoms to defend others.

Announcing the nominees at a press conference on Monday in Geneva, it was noted that all three finalists are currently either detained, banned from travel or in some way silenced by the authoritarian states in which they operate.

Now in its twentieth year, the annual award provides protection and support to human rights defenders who are at risk. The finalists and laureate are selected by a jury of 10 of the world's leading human rights NGOs, who lend their weight to each nominees' plight and raise awareness of their work.

Yu Wensheng, a Chinese human rights lawyer from Beijing, has been detained for his activism in favour of the rule of law, democracy and governmental reform since 2018. For the past ten years, Wensheng has worked on a number of high-profile human rights cases and publicly advocated for constitutional changes and a revision of the legal system, including the abolition of the death penalty and the introduction of a multi-party system.

As one of the best-known Chinese human rights activists, Yu Wensheng has been expelled from the legal bar, detained and convicted during a secret trial. According to his wife Xu Yan, who addressed the press conference, he is currently being held in solitary confinement, is subjected to ill-treatment and has been denied access to medical care. Xu Yan said the nomination was an affirmation of his previous work and would encourage other human rights defenders in China to continue fighting against persecution and abuse in the country.

Soltan Achilova is a photojournalist and reporter in Turkmenistan who has reported on the many human rights violations and injustices within the country. In the 2020 edition of the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, North Korea was the only place where the media was considered less free than in Turkmenistan.

The 71-year-old has documented food insecurity, illegal evictions and discrimination in her home country, as well as the failings of the inadequate health care system and catastrophic Covid-19 crisis which the government seeks to cover up. In return, she has had her internet cut off, been barred from travel and subjected to harassment and attacks.

In a pre-recorded video address following the announcement of her nomination for the award, Achilova said she needed protection and support from international human rights organisations and hoped this would help stop the harassment against her and her family. “Sometimes I think about giving up,” she said. “But someone has to tell the world about the real situation in Turkmenistan.”

Loujain al-Hathloul is a 31-year-old human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, where her advocacy for gender equality and women’s rights has led to her imprisonment.

Before her arrest in 2018, she was one of the key figures of the Women to Drive movement calling for the abolition of the driving ban for women, and advocated for the end of the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia which allows men to exert control over their wives, daughters and mothers.

She has been in detention since May, where she has been subjected to torture and denied access to her lawyers, family and medical care, the foundation said. On 28 December she was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, and faces a five year travel ban and three years of probation on release. Uma Mishra, head of the campaign to free Loujain, said the nomination was important to raise awareness of her work and strengthen calls for her freedom: “Although she cannot speak and use her own voice, her legacy and her activism are never forgotten.”

The winner of the Martin Ennals Award 2021 will be announced in a virtual ceremony streamed from Geneva on 11 February.