Mahsa Amini awarded EU human rights prize after death in Iranian custody

Accolade for 22-year-old shared with the Woman, Life, Freedom movement triggered by her death

The European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize to Mahsa Amini, who died in Iranian custody. AFP
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Mahsa Amini, the Iranian-Kurd who died in police custody in Tehran last year, has been given the Sakharov Prize, the EU's top award for human rights.

Ms Amini's death triggered mass protests and the creation of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, which EU organisers described as “woman-led” activism that “created history”.

The movement and Ms Amini share the award.

The Sakharov Prize was founded in 1988 to honour people or groups who defend human rights and fundamental freedom. It is named after Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who died in 1989.

The EU prize announcement comes two weeks after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the jailed Iranian rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi.

“The brutal murder of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini marked a turning point,” European Parliament speaker Roberta Metsola said on Thursday. "It has triggered a women-led movement that is making history.

Ms Metsola said the movement's three-word slogan was “a rallying cry for all those standing up for equality, for dignity and for freedom in Iran”.

Ms Amini died on September 16 last year, while being held by Iran's religious police who had arrested her over "inappropriate" wearing of her hijab. The police denied she had suffered any harm on their watch.

Her family and supporters say she was killed but Iranian authorities claim she died in custody from a previously undisclosed medical condition.

Her death generated a global movement known as Woman, Life, Freedom, calling for the end of Iran's imposition of a mandatory headscarf on all women and an end to the cleric-led government in Tehran.

Iranian security forces cracked down on the protests domestically, killing hundreds, and executed dozens for allegedly participating in what officials called “riots”.

This week, Ms Amini's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, was sentenced to one year in jail for “propaganda” after he spoke to the media about her case.

Many Iranian women continue to defy the government's clothing edict by taking off their headscarves in public.

The Woman, Life, Freedom campaign continues in cities around the world, with frequent demonstrations in which Ms Amini's photo is held aloft.

Mohammadi's Nobel Peace Prize was in recognition of her fight against the mandatory headscarf in Iran and the oppression of women in the country.

Together, the two prizes focus attention on Iranian authorities' punishment of women who defy the headscarf order, seen by both sides as an act of defiance.

Ms Amini and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement were backed by the European Parliament's three main political groups, making them the front-runner well before the Sakharov Prize winner was announced.

Finalists this year included Vilma Nunez de Escorcia and Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez – two emblematic figures in the fight for the defence of human rights in Nicaragua – and a trio of women from Poland, El Salvador and the US leading a fight for “free, safe and legal abortion”.

Billionaire Elon Musk had been put forward in an initial round but failed to make the shortlist.

The Sakharov Prize, which comes with €50,000 ($53,000), will be presented in a European Parliament ceremony on December 13.

Updated: October 19, 2023, 12:45 PM