• Pictures of Sotuodeh and Panahi being put up in the EU parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Iranian prize winners put their necks on the line

13.12.12 @ 09:28

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The winners of this year's EU Sakharov prize for free speech have risked their safety by speaking out to MEPs on Wednesday (12 December).

The statements - by imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and by Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi, who is under a six-year suspended sentence - were read out on their behalf in Strasbourg because Iran declined to let them collect the award in person.

Sotoudeh's letter, read by exiled Iranian lawyer and Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, said that human rights are the reason behind all the Arab Spring revolutions, which began with a failed uprising in Iran in 2009.

She noted: "I'd like to send my warmest and sincerest greetings from Evin prison [in Tehran] ... This [Sakharov] decision is a great source of pride for me and encourages me to keep up my struggle with patience and calm."

She added: "The fight to protect human rights as a lawyer is a compelling one even if it leads to imprisonment."

Panahi's letter, read out by Greek film director Costa-Gavras, said: "The authorities of my country are becoming so intolerant that they cannot even stand independent journalists or film makers."

He noted that his sentence gave him a choice: "To run [from Iran] or to live with this sword of Damocles above my head."

But he added: "I chose to stay" because "I love my country dearly ... even though I can no longer take up my camera."

The statements in themselves constitute a risk for Sotoudeh and Panahi and for their families.

Sotoudeh noted that she recently went on hunger strike because of "judicial pressure" on her closest relatives designed to keep her quiet.

Panahi pointed out that an Iranian blogger - 35-year-old Sattar Beheshti - last month died in police custody for speaking out against the regime on a webpage which, according to the Sakharov winner, had just eight readers.

For his part, parliament President Martin Schulz paid tribute to "a man and a woman who are standing up for a better Iran."

He added that the prize "says to the regime: 'You are being watched'."

Dutch Liberal deputy Marietje Schaake, who nominated Sotuodeh and Panahi, said: "These winners are true symbols of the courage of the Iranian people."

Tarja Cronenberg, a Finnish green deputy who chairs the parliament's Iran delegation, noted: "The European Parliament should build a strong, frank, and open dialogue with Iran and its people."

The prize was handed over to two empty chairs.

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