From Mandela to Malala: Sakharov winners that won the Nobel Peace prize

Malala Yousafzai receives the Sakharov prize in the European Parliament, 2013 [Malala]

Four laureates of the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, an award established in 1988 and named after the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, also won the Nobel Peace prize. EURACTIV Spain reports.

The father of the Soviet “H” bomb, Sakharov was a physicist who later turned his back on the arms race and won the Nobel Peace prize in 1975, but could not attend the ceremony because the USSR forbade him from travelling to Oslo. His second wife, Yelena Bonner, received it in his stead.

“Today he is not here but in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, where they are judging the scientist Serguei Kovalyov […] In this very moment he is outside the tribunal, in the cold, for the second day in a row, waiting for his closest friend to be sentenced”, Bonner said at the ceremony, before reading Sakharov’s speech.

The prize, which he dedicated to “all the prisoners of conscience of the communist bloc”, complicated the life of a man who had it all – money, a good home, success – and who came to be accused and publicly discredited when he started expressing his dissent, to the point of losing his closest family relations.

Five years later, he directed his criticism at the invasion of Afghanistan and was then confined to the city of Gorki (present day Nizhni Nóvgorod), where no foreigners were allowed, until Mikhail Gorbachev freed and rehabilitated him in 1986.

Gorbachev called Sakharov to announce he was free, and the physicist allegedly told him: “there are too many prisoners of conscience in our country”, and made Gorbachev promise he would review each case, according to Sakharov’s son Dimitri.

In the last three years he spent as a free man, he travelled to the US and Norway, and was received in the European Parliament. He kept fighting from this platform against the war in Afghanistan and lived to see the first Sakharov prize ceremony.

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Mandela, Suu Kyi, the UN and Malala

The first prize in his name was awarded in 1988 to Nelson Mandela, who went on to receive the Nobel Peace prize in 1993, and to deceased soviet dissident Anatoli Marchenko. Those awards were collected by Mandela’s nephew and Marchenko’s widow, respectively.

Mandela was under house arrest for his fight against apartheid in South Africa, of which he became president in 1994.

Condemned to 27 years in prison, on 13 July 1990 he thanked the European Parliament in Strasbourg for the honour awarded to him: “we receive it as a challenge to, above all, have the courage to fight for justice and peace, whatever the obstacles. We will try not to fail you”, he said.

In the following years, three more Sakharov laureates received the Nobel: Burmese political dissident Aunf San Suu Kyi, the UN and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.

Suu Kii won the third Sakharov Prize in 1990 for her defence of democracy under Burma’s military dictatorship, and could only collect it 23 years later.

In 1991 she also received the Nobel for her “non-violent fight for democracy and human rights.”

Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San – the intellectual father of independent Burma- spent 15 years in prison or confined at home until her liberation in 2010

Since 2015 she is the de facto leader of her country, recently under fire for the repression of the Burmese army of the minority population of Rohingya muslims, following which more than half a million people fled to Bangladesh.

When she came to Strasbourg to receive her prize, on 22 October 2013, Suu Kyi thanked the support of the “free world” that gave her “strength to continue.”

She told MEPs that “Burma is a country of many people, opinions, regions and races. We must unite and create unity in diversity (…) As long as we work towards this goal, we hope you will be with us to point out our mistakes.”

On 13 September 2014, a plenary session of the Parliament condemned Suu Kyi for her violence against the Rohingya people and warned of the “need to study whether the Sakharov prize can be retracted” if the winner breaks the criteria that led to it being awarded in the first place.

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The girl with two prizes

The UN was awarded the Sakharov prize in 2003 for its “work on peace, human rights and fundamental freedoms”, two years after co-receiving – together with its secretary general Kofi Annan – the Nobel Peace prize for its “work towards a better and more peaceful world.”

Pakistani teenager Malala also won both prizes, the youngest awardee of both international awards.

The girl was 15 when she suffered an assault by Taliban insurgents in the Swat Valley in 2012, bent on impeding female education in that corner of Pakistan that had been snatched from the Pakistani army.

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“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it.”

They shot her in the head, but she survived, giving a face and voice to her activism for education. She received in 2013 the Sakharov prize and in 2014 the Nobel Peace prize, which she shared with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi for his common fight against “oppression of children and youth, and for the right of all children to education.”

MEPs met her acceptance speech with a standing ovation on 23 November 2013: “Children in countries like mine don’t want an iPhone, an Xbox, a Playstation or chocolates. They only want a book and a pen.”

In the three decades of the Sakharov prize, there were numerous similar awardees, like Czech political dissidents Alexandr Dubcek, Albanian Kosovars Adem Demaci (1991) and Ibrahim Rugova (1998), Cubans Oswaldo Payá (2002) and Guillermo Fariñas (2010) or Chinese Wei Jingsheng (1996) and Hu Jia (2008).

NGOs like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International were awarded the Nobel peace Prize, and the organisation Reporters Without Borders was awarded the Sakharov in 2005.

This year, one of the finalist of the European Parliament’s top award is the indigenous activist Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic. In 1992, another Guatemalan activist, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, had won the Nobel Peace prize.

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