A prominent Saudi women’s rights activist and a Chinese rights lawyer, both imprisoned, plus a photojournalist from Turkmenistan were nominated Monday for a top human rights prize.

Organisers of the Martin Ennals Award hoped that the nominations could shine a light on abuses in authoritarian states.

709 crackdown anniversary lawyers protest
Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

“The finalists distinguish themselves by their bravery and deep commitment to the issues they defend, despite the many attempts to silence them,” the organisers said in a statement.

The Geneva-based Martin Ennals Foundation is named after the first secretary general of Amnesty International, who died in 1991. 

The prize is judged by 10 leading rights groups, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. 

One nominee for the prize, to be awarded on February 11, is 31-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul.

She was arrested along with around a dozen women activists in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted the decades-old ban on female drivers that they had campaigned against.

Al-Hathloul, whose family alleges she has faced sexual harassment and torture in detention, was recently handed a near six-year prison term on charges related to national security.

Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul. Photo: Martin Ennals Award, via Twitter.

Half the sentence was suspended and the activist, who has carried out several hunger strikes in detention, is expected to be released early this year. 

Her sister Lina al-Hathloul hailed the nomination.

“Congratulations, I hope you can be informed of all of this recognition and that it helps you hold on. I love you,” she said in a tweet.

Another Martin Ennals finalist this year is Yu Wensheng, a 54-year-old Chinese rights lawyer who was detained in Beijing nearly three years ago over his activism for democracy and the rule of law.

Yu Wensheng
Yu Wensheng with his wife Xu Yan.

Last June, he was sentenced to four years in prison, according to his wife, on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” after penning an open letter calling for constitutional reforms.

Initially a corporate lawyer, Yu has over the past decade taken a number of high-profile rights cases, including his defence of lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was among more than 300 lawyers and activists arrested in a crackdown in July, 2015.

‘Repressive environment’

The final nominee for this year’s prize is Soltan Achilova, a 71-year-old photojournalist who has documented rights abuses and social issues like food insecurity and forced evictions in Turkmenistan.

“Despite the repressive environment and personal hardships, she is one of the very few reporters in the country daring to sign independent articles,” Monday’s statement said.

Slotan Achilova
Slotan Achilova. Photo: Martin Ennals Award, via Twitter.

Achilova, who has smuggled articles and reports to foreign based media outlets and contributed photographs to investigations by Human Rights Watch and others on housing rights violations, has faced “severe forms of attacks and harassment”, the organisers said.

The prize jury hailed the finalists for their courage.

“Authoritarian states tend to believe that by jailing or censoring human rights defenders, the world will forget about them,” jury chairman Hans Thoolen said in the statement.

“During the Covid pandemic, it seemed like lockdowns would successfully keep people from speaking out. This year’s finalists are a testament to the fact that nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

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