Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in police custody in Iran last year, sparking worldwide protests against the country’s conservative Islamic theocracy, was awarded the European Union’s top human rights prize on October 19.
The EU award, named for Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, was created in 1988 to honor individuals or groups who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms. Sakharov, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died in 1989.
Other finalists this year included Vilma Núñez de Escorcia and Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez — two emblematic figures in the fight for the defense of human rights in Nicaragua — and a trio of women from Poland, El Salvador and the United States leading a fight for “free, safe and legal abortion.”
Amini died on September 16, 2022, after she was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory headscarf law. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said that day will “live in infamy,” adding that her “brutal murder” marked a turning point.
“It has triggered a women-led movement that is making history,” she said as she announced the awarding of the prize to Amini and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in Iran.
“The world has heard the chants of ‘Women, Life, Liberty.’ Three words that have become a rallying cry for all those standing up for equality, for dignity and for freedom in Iran,” Metsola said.
Women have played a leading role in the protests, with many publicly removing the compulsory Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab.
The 27-nation EU has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and organizations — including ministers, military officers and Iran’s morality police — for human rights abuses over the protests.
“We stand with those who, even from prison, continue to keep women, life and freedom alive,” Metsola said. “By choosing them as laureates for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2023, this House remembers their struggle and continues to honor all those who have paid the ultimate price for liberty.ʺ
Amini died three days after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police. While authorities said she suffered a heart attack, Amini’s supporters said she was beaten by police and died as a result of her injuries.
Her death triggered protests that spread across the country and rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of Iran’s four-decade-old Islamic theocracy.
Authorities responded with a violent crackdown in which more than 500 people were killed and over 22,000 others were detained, according to rights groups. The demonstrations largely died down early this year, but there are still widespread signs of discontent. For several months, women could be seen openly flaunting the headscarf rule in Tehran and other cities, prompting a renewed crackdown over the summer.
The award ceremony will take place on December 13. Last year’s prize was awarded to the people of Ukraine and their representatives for their resistance to Russia’s invasion and defiance during the ongoing war.