Imprisoned Chinese lawyer Yu Wensheng wins human rights award

Yu Wensheng with his wife Xu Yan.

The imprisoned Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng has won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders.

A human rights lawyer from Beijing, Wensheng was arrested in 2018 following his work on several high-profile cases defending fellow lawyers, alongside advocating for judicial and constitutional reform. Wensheng was expelled from the legal bar, detained and convicted at a secret trial of “inciting subversion”, and is currently serving a four year sentence announced in June 2020.

Known as the Nobel Prize for human rights, the prestigious award recognises individuals who have sacrificed their own freedoms to defend others. All three finalists for this year's award were either detained, banned from travel or in some way silenced by governments in the authoritarian states where they work.

Wensheng’s award was accepted by his wife Xu Yan, who hasn’t been allowed to see her husband since he was imprisoned, and is herself under constant surveillance by the Chinese government.

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Yu Wensheng.

Speaking via a recorded video during the virtual awards ceremony on Thursday evening, Xu Yan said the award would bring attention to Wensheng’s plight and hoped it would encourage other human rights defenders and lawyers in China to continue their work. She noted that many other lawyers in the country were also facing persecution by the government.

“The Martin Ennals Award is not only an honour for Yu Wensheng, but also an encouragement to all Chinese human rights lawyers and human rights defenders who persist and work hard despite difficult circumstances,” said Xu Yan.

For the ten years prior to his imprisonment, Wensheng 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. Xu Yan, who is herself training to become a human rights lawyer, says he has been subjected to ill-treatment and denied access to medical care while detained, and that she is worried about his deteriorating health.

“On the eve of the Chinese New Year, we hope this recognition of Yu Wensheng’s work will shine a light on his achievements and help him regain the freedom he has lost,” said Philippe Currat, president of the board of the Martin Ennals Foundation.

Wensheng's wife Xu Yan continues to campaign fearlessly for her husband's release.

Saudi Arabian women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and Soltan Achilova, a journalist documenting human rights violations in Turkmenistan, were the other finalists for this year's award.

Achilova is a photojournalist and reporter in Turkmenistan, where the restrictions on press freedoms are second only to North Korea, according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Her tireless work to document dire conditions in the country - including poverty, food insecurity, discrimination and the impact of Covid-19 - has led to her internet and mobile connection being cut off. She and her family have also been subjected to constant harassment and attacks, and she is banned from travelling.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a 31-year-old human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, was one of the key figures of the Women to Drive movement, calling for the abolition of the driving ban for women. She also advocated for the end of the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia which allows men to exert control over their wives, daughters and mothers. Her advocacy for gender equality and women’s rights led to her kidnap and imprisonment in 2018.

On 10 February, Loujain was released from prison after spending nearly three years behind bars, where her family say she has been subjected to torture and sexual assault. While human rights campaigners and her family members have celebrated her release, they say they will continue to fight until the travel ban on Loujain is lifted.

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.