Malala's victory came as no surprise as she was nominated by the three largest political groups in the European Parliament – the European People's Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
She is also a favourite among experts and betting agencies to win this year's Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
16 year old Malala was rewarded for speaking out in favour of girls’ education in Pakistan. In 2009 she started a blog for the BBC’s Urdu section under a pseudonym, which led to threats from Taliban groups and eventually an assassination attempt last year, when she was shot in the head while on a school bus in northwestern Pakistan. She then recovered after receiving treatment in Britain's Birmingham hospital.
"By awarding the Sakharov Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the European Parliament acknowledges the incredible strength of this young woman," said European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
"Malala bravely stands for the right of all children to be granted a fair education. This right for girls is far too commonly neglected," Schulz said, stressing that today (11 October) was International Day of the Girl Child, making her award all the more significant.
"She is an icon of courage for all teenagers who dare to pursue their aspirations and, like a candle, she lights a path out of darkness," said Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right EPP group.
Belarussian activist forgotten for the second time
Malala pipped a list of six other candidates for the prize. Some of them are little-known to the wider European public, such as Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, who was nominated for the second year in a row. He was nominated together with two other Belarusian activists.
Bialiatski, who is the vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), was arrested and sentenced to four and a half years in prison by authorities in Minsk, allegedly for “tax evasion” in a massive crackdown led by President Aleksander Lukashenko, known as the “last dictator in Europe”, after his third re-election.
Ironically, Bialiatski's arrest was made possible thanks to two EU member states – Poland and Lithuania – whose prosecutor general’s offices shared information about Bialiatski’s bank accounts with Minsk. Both Warsaw and Vilnius later apologised and launched investigations into who might have leaked the sensitive information to the regime in Belarus.
The nomination of Bialiatski for the Sakharov Prize this year was backed by only 42 MEPs, most of them from Poland.
Another nominee, US whistleblower Edward Snowden, was a much higher profile candidate, and was backed by two political groups in the Parliament – the Greens/European Free Alliance and the United Left (GUE/NGL).
Snowden, a former contractor at the US National Security Agency (NSA), leaked details to the Guardian newspaper about the US government’s mass surveillance of Europe’s internet servers, institutions and companies, prompting angry reactions across the EU member states.
"We believe he epitomises that which the prize intends to recognise”, the greens and leftist groups said in September. “Instead of being given asylum in the EU, he has been abandoned by cowardly European governments. We hope his inclusion on the shortlist for the Sakharov Prize can serve as a symbol of rejection of this gross, massive and illegal intrusion into the privacy of citizens worldwide.”
But the whistleblower was apparently too controversial for the Sakharov Prize. The European Conservatives and Reformists Group, after welcoming Malala's victory, called the greens’ nomination of Snowden shameful.
"For the Greens and Communists to nominate Edward Snowden is an insult to the many brave and worthy people who have received this prize in the past. Edward Snowden is a fugitive, not a freedom fighter. The Greens and Communists should be ashamed of their actions, which have demeaned the value of this prize", the ECR said in a statement. The greens refused to comment.
Other nominees were Ethiopian journalists Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega, jailed Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Turkish "Standing Man" protesters and the 'CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern Day Slavery'.