19/12/2011 Official ceremony to award the Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament in Strasbourg

The Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought is awarded by the European Parliament every year to people who have made a contribution to defending human rights and democracy. This year, the European Parliament awarded this prize to five people who were active in the Arab revolutions. The official ceremony took place at midday on December 14th in Strasbourg although only two of the winners were in attendance.

Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the founders of the "April 6th Youth Movement" which called on people to assemble in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Ahmed Senussi, a Libyan dissident who spent 31 years in prison for his opposition to the Gadhafi regime, both received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament at the official ceremony in Strasbourg.

Two winners could not be present at the ceremony – Syrian lawyer Razan Zeitouneh who was a leader of the coordination committees in the Syrian revolts and Ali Farzat, a cartoonist who was seriously attacked by the Syrian Authorities and had both his hands broken. "Our Syrian friends are still fighting for their rights and for obvious reasons they could not attend today", said the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Razan Zeitouneh is currently in hiding and the Syrian authorities have accused her of being a foreign agent. Ali Farzat has taken refuge in Kuwait. Neither was in a position to organise a trip to Strasbourg. Mr Farzat was however able to take part in the ceremony via video linkup.

This year, the Sakharov Prize was also awarded posthumously to Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire to protest the harassment he received at the hands of the Tunisian authorities.

"These people contributed to historic changes in the Arab world and this prize shows the Parliament’s solidarity and support for their fight for freedom, democracy and the end of authoritarian regimes," stated European Parliament President, Jerzy Buzek.

During a press conference, the winners in attendance were keen to thank the European media for covering the events and, through its presence and its work, for supporting them in their fight against dictatorships. When asked about relations between European leaders and some fallen dictators, Jerzy Buzek said that he "did not want to blame anyone". He did however mention that he himself had visited Libya while Gadhafi was in power but he was careful not to meet the colonel.

He also noted that relations with these leaders were sometimes difficult but necessary. "I come from a part of Europe where oppression was a daily reality. We got spiritual and intellectual support from neighbouring countries in Western Europe but we were aware at the time that they could not do more for us because they had to maintain contact with Eastern countries, particularly to maintain trade," said the Polish President of the European Parliament. He stated that it was in the interest of citizens living under dictatorships that contact, and particularly trade, continued with democratic countries.

Jerzy Buzek also hopes that new instruments can be established and said that the Parliament is currently working on this with the European Commission. "We are in the process of rebuilding our neighbourhood policy," he said making particular reference to the funding being provided to train civil servants for the new Arab democracies.

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