Middle East

Loujain Al-Hathloul wins Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on Monday awarded its human rights prize to Saudi Arabian activist Loujain Al-Hathloul.

The Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award has been awarded annually since 2013 to individuals or institutions for an extraordinary contribution to the defense of human rights.

The prize is named after Vaclav Havel, the human rights activist and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, and is endowed with €60,000 ($72,000). 

The winner: Loujain Al-Hathloul (Saudi Arabia)

Al-Hathloul is a prominent womens’ rights activist known for defying the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and for opposing the Saudi male guardianship system.

In December 2020, a judge sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison after finding her guilty of violating the country’s counterterrorism law.

She was charged with violating national security and of maintaining contacts with foreign governments in an attempt to change the country’s political system. At the time of the verdict, she had already spent more than two years in custody while awaiting trial.

After spending 1,001 nights in jail, the Saudi Arabian human rights activist got out on probation in February. “Loujain is at home,” her sister Lina al-Hathloul wrote on Twitter. 

Nominee: Julienne Lusenge (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Since 1978, Julienne Lusenge has been the leading female activist in Democratic Republic of the Congo fighting against gender-based violence (GBV) and the promotion of the rights of women and girls in conflict situations.

She was instrumental in obtaining convictions of perpetrators who enlisted child soldiers, and collected evidence of sexual slavery that led to further convictions.

Lusenge also helped obtain the convictions of hundreds of perpetrators of sexual violence against women at national level.

She has been threatened for her work on several occasions.

Nominee: Nuns of the Drukpa Order (Nepal)

The Himalayan “Kung Fu Nuns” of the Drukpa Order of Buddhism were nominated for their work — from curbing human trafficking, to fighting for gender equality, to mobilizing for disaster relief.

The more than 500 Kung Fu Nuns, many of whom are teenagers, sparked an inspirational movement in the Himalayas when they took up martial arts to empower themselves to become stronger community leaders.

“We are so thankful for this acknowledgement.  Sometimes older people will tell us we should just stay in the temple and read, or stay in the kitchen. So being a finalist for this award makes us feel very encouraged,” nun Jigme Konchok Lhamo told Kashmir Images.

Who are notable past winners?

Since 2013, the prize has been awarded in turn to Ales Bialiatski (Belarus), Anar Mammadli (Azerbaijan), Ludmilla Alexeeva (Russian Federation), Nadia Murad (Iraq), Murat Arslan (Turkey) and Oyub Titiev (Russian Federation).

Last year’s Prize was awarded jointly to imprisoned Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti from China and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR).

Enver Can of the Ilham Tohti Initiative, who represented Tohti at the event, vowed to continue efforts to free the Uyghur economist, who was jailed for life in 2014 by a Chinese court on charges of inciting separatism.

The YIHR, founded 2003 in the Balkans, describes itself as a group campaigning for justice, equality, democracy and peace; it places particular importance on building cooperation between young activists from different countries and communities in the Balkans.

Anti-communist hero

Vaclav Havel was at the forefront of the 1989 revolution that toppled four decades of communist rule in Czechoslovakia before he became president.

Playwright Havel’s underground theater riled authorities at the time of the 1968 Prague Spring, the first flowering of a democratic movement in the country.

Havel went on to become a co-founder of the Charter 77 movement for democratic change. As the country’s most renowned dissident, he suffered harassment from authorities and was subjected to repeated periods of imprisonment. He served as the last president of Czechoslovakia in 1992, and then as the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Havel died in December 2011. Eleven months later, on what would have been his 76th birthday, Prague’s main airport was renamed in his honor.

By Marcel Nadim Aburakia

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