A renowned human rights lawyer, who has been tortured in prison in China according to his lawyer, has been awarded a human rights prize in recognition of his work to defend human rights despite the great risks he faces.
Yu Wensheng was arrested in 2018 after dedicating his career to promoting human rights in China.
He was nominated for the Martin Ennals Award alongside two other human rights defenders, and was announced as the winner on Thursday 11 February.
Presenting the awards - which were held remotely over video chat due to the coronavirus pandemic - the organisation’s director Isabel De Sola said while the profiles and causes the nominees advance are very different, what they have in common is that “the authorities of their countries will go to great lengths to stop them.”
“Authoritarian states such as these crack down on human rights defenders, they track them and survey them, they harass their families, they troll and discredit them online, they shut down the businesses or organisations they start, and in some cases they put defenders in jail.
“For their peaceful activism they go to jail.”
It was the 28th edition of the awards, which she said “provide a burst of support to human rights defenders”.
Yu Wensheng: Human rights lawyer imprisoned and tortured in China
Yu Wensheng was enjoying a successful career as a corporate lawyer, until he decided to change his focus to human rights in a country where such activism can be a dangerous pursuit.
He started to speak out on the rule of law in China, and worked on a number of high-profile human rights cases - in turn raising his profile.
He understood the risks of taking on such cases - and in 2018 he was imprisoned by the state, accused of “inciting subversion of state power”.
His lawyer claims Wensheng was held for 18 months without contact with the outside world. Eventually the lawyer could see him, and he said he had been “tortured in detention and his health has drastically deteriorated”.
In June 2020 he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. His wife, Xu Yan, who gave an interview ahead of the awards ceremony, says he is being held in solitary confinement, had been denied access to medical care, and that his hand was crushed as a result of “ill-treatments”.
“This nomination will be of great help to both Yu Wensheng and the overall situation of human rights lawyers and defenders in China,” she said.
“Firstly this is a kind of support and affirmation of his work on human rights. It can also empower him to continue to work hard in the future.”
Isabel De Sola said Xu Yan has "picked up the mantle" where her husband left off and she "refuses to give up".
"Their bravery, and now the recognition they’ve received internationally, will inspire other Chinese defenders and activists to persist in their efforts for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in their country."
Soltan Achilova: 71-year-old investigative journalist
The only nominee who was able to speak to the organisation, in a pre-recorded interview, was Soltan Achilova.
The 71-year-old journalist said she had lived the past 30 years in Turkmenistan hoping for better days to come, “but this has not happened”.
“We are surviving each day rather than living our lives but one must never give up hope,” she said.
She said the human rights situation in Turkmenistan is “deplorable”, with human rights activists facing “all kinds of retaliation measures such as surveillance, arrest, pressure on members of the family.”
While Achilova is able to carry out her work - she says the website where she publishes gets around 30,000 visits each day - she is “always under risk”.
These visitor numbers are an achievement she says, as the internet and mass media are controlled by the government.
Loujain al-Hathloul: Fighting for women's rights in Saudi Arabia
Named one of TIME Magazine’s most influential people in 2019, and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, Loujain al-Hathloul was one of the key figures behind the Women to Drive movement in Saudi Arabia.
Prior to her arrest in 2018 she was fighting to abolish the driving ban for women in the country, as well as calling for the end of the male guardianship system.
The 31-year-old was arrested for the first time in 2014 while driving from neighbouring UAE to Saudi Arabia.
She was in detention between 2018 and 2021, and according to the Martin Ennals Foundation she has endured torture, solitary confinement and denial of access to lawyers, her family, and medical care.
Released on Wednesday after 1001 days in prison, her family say she is subject to a social media ban.
Protecting human rights defenders around the world
First held in 1994, these awards are named after the former Secretary General of Amnesty International Martin Ennals.
In 1977, while the British human rights activist was running Amnesty, the organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Just after his death in 1991, the Martin Ennals award was founded, with the aim of honouring human rights defenders, raising their profile, and providing them with protection.
Before Yu Wensheng there were two other winners of the award from China.
The first recipient after the awards were founded was Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in a labour camp in China.
In 2016 the award went to Ilham Tohti, a renowned Urghur activist who was fighting for the rights of China’s Muslim minority, and is now serving a life sentence in the country.
He also won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2019.
De Sola insists the awards are a crucial tool in putting pressure on authoritarian regimes.
"Human rights can die in the darkness, so with the Martin Ennals Award our aim is to exponentially grow Yu Wensheng’s and Xu Yan’s notoriety," she said.
"Last night’s ceremony draws attention to violations against its own citizens committed by the current Chinese regime. In the case of China, we know that they are unhappy about this award because in a January press conference just after we announced Yu Wensheng’s candidacy, a foreign ministry spokesperson denied his existence and described our efforts as futile international meddling."