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Yazidi Activists Win Sakharov Prize, But Opaque Process Sparks Debate


Former IS prisoner Nadia Murad Basee won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg earlier this month.

BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has awarded its Sakharov Prize For Freedom Of Thought to two Yazidi survivors of sexual enslavement and other brutality at the hands of the militant group Islamic State (IS), but the choice was marred by a dispute that cast a pall over the informal process to pick a winner.

Both of this year's laureates of the prize for contributions to human rights, Yazidi activists Nadia Murad Basee and Lamiya Aji Bashar, escaped IS captivity to become "public advocates for the Yazidi community in Iraq, a religious minority that has been the subject of a genocidal campaign by IS militants," in the words of the prize's organizers.

"This is a very symbolic and significant decision to support these two survivors, who came to Europe as refugees and who found shelter in the European Union," European Parliament President Martin Schulz announced at the European legislature's plenary session on October 27, "And we, as the European Parliament, now support them in their fight not only for the dignity we have to grant to everybody but also for their fight to give testimony as a witness to these atrocities."

But grumblings of discord emerged ahead of and after the final vote by the European Parliament's so-called Conference of Presidents -- comprising the chamber's president and the chairpersons or other envoys of its various political groupings -- with deputies and other sources saying the conference broke from accepted tradition and ignored the rankings of the secret ballots by the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Development committees, which shortlisted the three finalists.

Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Dzhemilev
Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Dzhemilev

Sources close to this year's process told RFE/RL ahead of the prize's announcement that Crimean Tatar politician and human rights activist Mustafa Dzhemilev won that closed-door ballot for the shortlisting, which was held on 11 October. The Ukrainian reportedly got 34 votes, 10 more than Murad Basee and Aji Bashar in second place and 11 more than the third shortlisted candidate, Turkish editor Can Dundar.

Dzhemilev ranked "a strong first candidate [for] the shortlist," Lithuanian deputy Petras Austrevicius said after the announcement of the winners. "As a rule, the first candidate usually receives the strongest backing, is the political debate and then a decision is made."

German Alliance '90/The Greens MEP Rebecca Harms, who voted for Murad Basee and Aji Bashar, said the Conference of Presidents has in the past ignored the vote of the committees.

European People's Party (Christian Democrats) deputy from Romania Cristian Dan Preda, however, insisted that "it never happened" that the final selection did not reflect the vote of the Foreign Affairs (AFET) and Development (DEVE) committees.

'No Tricky Games'

The controversy over the decades-old process -- the Sakharov Prize was established in 1988 -- is likely to lead to questions about interpreting its opaque procedures, which make tracing specific votes and factional preferences with any certainty difficult.

The rules of procedure state simply that "the two committees shall proceed jointly to an indicative vote producing a list of three candidates, in alphabetical order, from which the Conference of Presidents shall select one winner."

It was unclear which grouping in the final vote might have been responsible for the purported discrepancy.

WATCH: Yazidi Female Activists Win Sakharov Prize

Yazidi Female Activists Win Sakharov Prize
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Preda suggested the alliance of Socialists and other center-leftists was responsible for the difference between the committee votes and the final decision, and he even accused the Socialists & Democrats grouping of bowing to pressure from Russia, whose invasion and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea exiled Dzhemilev and other Crimean Tatars and imposed a tough crackdown on those who remained on the peninsula.

But a spokesman for the Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament, Dimitris Komodromos, denied there were any "tricky games" and stressed that "the final decision is up to the Conference of Presidents."

Lamiya Aji Bashar
Lamiya Aji Bashar

Komodromos rejected any suggestion that Russian pressure played a role, saying, "The winner was our candidate, our preferred candidate, and this kind of accusation is not valid. There is no pressure, and we don't accept any pressure, in any case from Moscow or from any other capital outside the European Union." He added that the Socialists & Democrats "are very critical of Moscow on several things, but we want the dialogue because we consider that via the dialogue we can [find a] solution."

Tireless Campaigners

Two center-right parties reportedly backed Dzhemilev for the prize, while Murad Basee and Aji Bashar were said to have been backed by socialist and left-leaning groups. Can Dundar was reportedly backed by an unlikely alliance of Greens and deputy groups from the far-left and far-right.

Murad Basee and Aji Bashar were captured by IS fighters and enslaved when their village in northern Iraq was taken over by that ruthless Sunni-led group in 2014. Both have campaigned tirelessly since their escape to promote women's and minority rights.

IS continues to control swaths of Iraq and Syria, which it claims as a caliphate where it imposes a brutal interpretation of Islamic law and routinely executes perceived enemies, sometimes en masse.

Murad Basee was awarded earlier this month with the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, which is handed out by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The veteran Crimean Tatar leader and Soviet-era dissident Dzhemilev has been barred from entering Crimea by the annexed peninsula's Moscow-installed leadership, but continues to draw attention to the plight of Tatars and other Ukrainians since Russian troops seized Crimea in early 2014.

The U.S. State Department has decried what it says is a broad range of rights violations targeting Crimean Tatars, including "systematic discrimination" and "physical abuse and beatings" by "Russian occupying forces."

The other shortlisted nominee, Can Dundar, is a well-known Turkish journalist who was jailed in November 2015 after his newspaper disclosed evidence of Turkish intelligence supplying Islamist fighters in Syria with weapons.

The prize is worth 50,000 euros ($55,000) and will be presented to the winner at a ceremony in Strasbourg on December 14.

With additional contributions by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.