Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year old Pakistani who nearly lost her life for advocating girls' education in her country, is this year’s winner of the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament's prestigious freedom of thought award. She is also seen as a frontrunner for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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'.
The Liberal and Democrats (ALDE) President, Guy Verhostadt said he was delighted that Malala's nomination received widespread political support in the European Parliament. He called Malala Yousafzai "an inspiration to every man, woman and child".
Sir Graham Watson, also a liberal, said that “education, particularly of girls, is now widely recognised as the most powerful tool we have for world development. Those who seek to deny it on conservative authoritarian grounds are the enemies of freedom and development. If the European Parliament chooses - as I hope it will - to award Malala the 25th Sakharov prize, it will be a great victory for education for all."
Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), said that "Malala personifies the fight for education for girls in areas where respect for women and their basic rights are completely ignored. 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".
The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) also welcomed Malala's victory. President Hannes Swoboda said Malala Yousafzai was "an inspiration to every man, woman and child''.
"It is absurd that today women and girls still need to fight for equality and education. In this fight, individuals like Malala are incredibly important. The Sakharov Prize symbolises our appreciation of her efforts and should be a reminder to all of us that equality and the right to education cannot be taken for granted", Swoboda added.
The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) spokesman Charles Tannock ?said: "Malala Yousafzai is a deserving winner of this prize. We are sending a message that violence and hatred will never prevail. A year after she was attacked her cause has won her a prestigious EU prize and, we hope, the Nobel Peace Prize: an incredible achievement for anyone, but especially for someone still in their teens."
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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