Dr. Denis Mukwege is the laureate of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2014, following the decision yesterday (21 October) by European Parliament President Martin Schulz and the political group leaders. Mukwege is a gynaecologist specialised in the treatment of rape victims and founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic Congo.
Surprisingly, the Ukrainian EuroMaidan movement, which led to the overthrow of the regime of Viktor Yanukovich, didn’t win the prize.
The Sakharov Prize, named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, was established in 1988 by the European Parliament. The last recipients were the Russian civil rights society Memorial in 2009, the Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas in 2010, representatives of the Arab people in recognition of their role in the Arab spring, for 2011, imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi, for 2012, and young Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, for 2013.
Announcing Mukwege as the 2014 laureate, President Schulz said the Conference of Presidents decided unanimously to award him the prize for his fight for protection especially of women.
Schulz said it wasn’t a decision against Euromaidan, and paid tribute to the other finalists, saying the representatives of Euromaidan will be invited to join the award ceremony in November.
He also explained that the Parliament will immediately send a delegation with representatives from all political groups to Azerbaijan to meet and to support Leyla Yunus in her fight for democracy and freedom in her country. Yunus, an imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights activist and director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, was also nominated for the prize.
It is unclear why EuroMaidan didn’t obtain the prize, but one of the reasons may be that the movement has also been accused of tolerating fringe groups such as the Right Sector, largely seen as extremists. The movement started peacefully, but didn’t end up that way.
Rape as weapon of war
The award appears as a symbol of international outrage against the use of rape as a weapon of war. Mukwege is known for providing help to such victims in his country. The 59-year-old gynaecologist founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in 1998, when a war took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where today he still treats victims of sexual violence who have sustained serious injuries.
The war in DRC might be officially over, but the armed conflict still continues in the eastern part of the country, and so do attacks against civilians, including gang rapes. Despite travelling regularly abroad to advocate women’s rights and managing Panzi Hospital, Mukwege continues to see patients and perform surgery two days a week. He was nominated by the S&D and ALDE groups and MEP Barbara Lochbihler.
Just as the recently awarded Nobel Peace Prize obtained this year by Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai and India’s Kailash Satyarthi, this year’s Sakharov prize appears to honour the heroes of the developing world who fight for values such as education and human dignity in extremely difficult circumstances.
Dr. Denis Mukwege has already received many distinctions, including the UN Human rights Prize for 2008, the Olof Palme Prize for 2009, the title African of the year for 2009, the King Beaudouin International Development Prize for 2011 and others.
He will be invited to Strasbourg on 26 November to receive the award during the Parliament’s plenary session.
EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs stated that he was very pleased to learn that the European Parliament had awarded Europe’s top human rights prize to Denis Mukwege. He said he has met Dr Mukwege on several occasions and also visited him at the Panzi hospital.
“The EU supports numerous programmes to help the victims of sexual violence (incl. the Panzi Hospital) and we try to prevent these terrible crimes from happening. However the most successful change needs to come from within the country. That’s why people like Dr Mukwege should be encouraged and strongly supported in their daily fight to change the fate of the Congolese women”, Piebalgs wrote in his blog.
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought has been awarded by the European Parliament every year since 1988 to individuals or organisations that have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy.
The award is accompanied by a stipend of €50,000.
Andrei Sakharov, who gave his name to the “European Prize for Freedom of Thought” was a Soviet dissident and physicist, who “sought to raise awareness of the dangers of the nuclear arms race”. He defended political prisoners and victims of political trials.
Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, but he was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to collect it.
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